Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat Newark
It is the monotony that has worn Aisha Oyediran.
She would wake up every school day, open her laptop, look at the screen – then eat, sleep, rehearse. Add in the stress of homework and the loneliness of distance learning, and things started to get bleak.
âIt continued,â said Aisha, 17, who was last year in her final year at Central High School in Newark. “There was no end to it.”
Aisha has managed to excel despite the pandemic gloom and is now heading to Johns Hopkins University. Yet the prospect of returning to classrooms amid rising COVID cases has sparked conflicting emotions.
âI’m very excited,â said Aisha, who moved to campus on Friday. “And also very scared.”
She is not alone. Many students are eager to finally reunite with their friends and teachers, but are nervous about socializing and learning in the flesh. Some are still dealing with the traumatic experiences they had during the pandemic.
The turmoil of the past year, the anxiety-provoking return to classrooms, pent-up demand for support – all of these make experts predict an unprecedented rise in students’ mental health needs. Now, flush with federal money, schools are rushing to respond by expanding mental health services that in the past were often overlooked.
âYou can’t keep kicking the box,â said George Worsley, a longtime school social worker in Newark. “If you do, the devastation is going to be monumental.”
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“The students are struggling”
The pandemic has not been good for anyone’s mental health. But for many vulnerable young people, it was catastrophic.
In addition to the isolation and frustration of distance learning, many students from low-income families have also encountered difficulties connecting to the internet, uncertainties about food and accommodation, and pressures to help. to take care of their siblings or contribute financially. Blacks and Hispanics, subject to disproportionate unemployment and COVID rates, were also more likely than whites to report anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
In addition, the debates on racism and the images of police violence that shake the country have had a psychic impact on many blacks.
âAs a black girl, it was pretty hard to watch,â said Olufunsho Olaniyan, 18, a Newark student and a member of the Gem Project, a youth leadership program. âThat’s not what you want to see: people who look like you are dying all the time. “
Mental health problems among young people, already on the rise before the pandemic, have increased over the past year. Teens reported feeling more stressed and disconnected, and mental health crises made up a larger share of children’s emergency room visits. During this time, students had less access to social services and educational opportunities such as sports, the arts and after-school programs.
“If it wasn’t obvious before, it is screaming at us now,” said Tahirah Crawford, director of academic internships at People’s Prep Charter School, “students are grappling with a lot of things.”
Returning to school should offer some relief for most students, even if it means readjusting to old rules and routines. Still, students who actually preferred distance learning because it saved them from harassment or harsh disciplinary policies might dread going back. And even those who wish to return cannot avoid fears of the Delta variant and another round of school closures.
âThe world is so unpredictable right now,â said Nivioska Bruce, director of school-based clinical interventions at CarePlus NJ, a nonprofit mental health care provider. “It causes stress, and stress does a lot for the human body.”
“We are outnumbered here”
Many schools have failed to keep up with the growing mental health needs of students.
In a survey last school year, 70% of elementary and middle school principals said they did not have enough mental health professionals on staff to meet the needs of students. And the staff in place are overwhelmed. In Newark, New Jersey’s largest school district, there are nearly 540 students for each counselor, more than double the recommended number of students per counselor.
âWe’re outnumbered here,â said Worsley, who is retiring this month after five decades in the Newark school system. “It has become overwhelming.”
Congress threw a lifeline for schools in the form of pandemic relief money, some of which is earmarked for mental health services. New Jersey has set aside $ 30 million of its share of federal mental health assistance, and district leaders across the country have said they plan to use some of their allocations for that purpose.
But if districts use federal money to increase staff, they’ll have to find another way to fund those positions when aid runs out – or else lay people off. And the hiring itself could be a challenge.
âThere is currently a huge demand for mental health professionals,â said Molly Fagan, executive director of Family and Children Services, a New Jersey social service agency. “They are very rare.”
Mental health staff already in schools find that much of their time is spent providing legally mandated services and assessments. This can leave students with no diagnosed needs waiting in vain for help.
“It has been a long time since many more children need services than they actually receive,” said Dr Linda Raffaele Mendez, professor of school psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
His university is trying to help solve the staffing problem. Through a partnership with Newark Public Schools, graduate students will provide counseling at four of the district’s more than 60 schools this year.
What schools can do now
Schools don’t have to wait for reinforcements to start helping returning students.
They can start by assessing students’ mental health needs, although some surveys require parental consent, which can be difficult to obtain for every student, said Raffaele Mendez. Teachers should also watch for unusual behaviors, such as frequent absences or trips to the nurse’s office, which could be symptoms of anxiety or other mental health issues.
“Anxiety can present itself in different ways,” she said. “Sometimes you might not be able to see it at all because the kids can hide it well enough.”
Teachers can promote mental health by having students practice deep breathing and meditation, and share their feelings in morning meetings. Educators should also tell students that it’s normal to feel nervous or uncomfortable as they readjust in school, said Tonia Lloyd, who teaches students about resilience.
âEveryone has some level of anxiety,â she said, âand that’s okay.â
Educators can also take a “trauma-informed” approach, which recognizes that children who have endured hardship can take action or stop in class, said Nivioska Bruce of CarePlus NJ.
âIt’s not about assuming these kids are just bad,â she said. “Take it a step further and try to find out what’s really going on.”
Schools can offer socio-emotional learning, which teaches students to identify emotions, deal with stress and adopt other healthy habits. People’s Prep plans to introduce âWellness Wednesdaysâ this school year, where students will spend their counseling period studying these skills and practicing mindfulness and journaling.
âResilience and well-being will be especially important this school year,â said Nicolette Rittenhouse-Young, director of student support at the school. This is because students “have so much more on their plate – more stress, more loss, more changes and transitions.”
Viva White, a licensed clinical social worker whose son attends Belmont Runyon School in Newark, said she was happy to see schools promoting self-help skills. But she stressed that such skills do not replace counseling and other support services. When schools reopen, families should demand that students receive the mental health help they need.
âEveryone is going to need support,â she said, âbecause everyone is going through it. Â»Https://forms.gle/Rx8Wb8Wn4wkpixHS8
Chalkbeat is a non-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.