Back to School: Addressing the Student Mental Health Crisis

15, Sep 2021 5:15 PM

Administrators, teachers, and parents alike are naturally feeling the anxiety of sending K-12 students back to school this year. Students are feeling anxious
too - and schools are facing growing concerns over the impact of the pandemic on their mental health.

When it comes to making mental health resources accessible for K-12 students, schools are one of the first lines of defense. From bringing more qualified mental health professionals on staff to culturally-sensitive social-emotional learning techniques (SEL), let’s discuss how you can tailor your approach to effectively address the needs of your student body.

Here’s what K-12 students are going through

The student mental health crisis has been increasing in severity for some time. Pre-pandemic numbers show that 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years were diagnosed with depression and 7.1% with anxiety. Yet from April through October of 2020, the rates of child and adolescent emergency visits for a mental health crisis skyrocketed - up 24% for children aged 5-11 and 31% for those aged 12-17 compared to the same period in 2019.

The pandemic adds to traditional stressors

Among the major traditional influences on student mental health are stress, bullying, family problems, learning disabilities, and substance abuse. For many schoolchildren, fears over their family’s safety and stability are new.

Tonica Logan is the Director of The Progress Place, Inc., which partners with schools and communities to provide effective mental health treatment for youth. Of this year’s back-to-school, she says, “Many of our clients are feeling uncertainty because they have adjusted to Zoom sessions. Our parents have expressed concerns around school closure and being exposed to COVID-19, and our clients feel their parents’ anxiety as well.”

How K-12 students respond differently

Students have been experiencing the effects of the pandemic in different ways. For younger students, missing school reduces their opportunities to develop critical social connections. For older students, the combination of growing awareness with growing pains can be challenging. For high school juniors and seniors, cancelled events alongside the feeling of waning post-graduation opportunities have invoked a unique sense of loss.

Mental health has worsened particularly among high schoolers in recent years. More than one in three high school students “experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009.” The reported rate of suicidal ideation also increased by 44% in this period.
When it comes to pandemic-induced mental health issues, it may be easier to draw a straight line with high schoolers who can express sadness, anxiety, or frustration as compared to younger children, whose stress and anxiety may instead manifest in inattention or disruptive behaviors.

Getting serious about student mental health

As we go back to school, pandemic-induced anxiety and depression will merge with other side effects of in-person schooling, including bullying and comparative learning gaps.

Plus, the effects will be felt for years to come. According to Logan, “the number of kids and teens we are treating with depression and anxiety issues is at an all-time high. Our therapist reports that most teens have become accustomed to staying in the house 24/7; now, they only want to stay in the house compared to pre-2020.”

Not only will helping students build coping mechanisms keep them focused at school, schools must take immediate action to mitigate the delayed effects of pandemic-induced stress on student well-being for years to come.


How can schools address the mental health crisis?

At least 70% of all students with mental health disorders do not receive adequate treatment.

Crucially, rates of treatment tend to be lower in communities of color. People who identify as AAPI, for example, are up to 3x less likely than White Americans to seek help, and biracial and multiracial children are more likely to report mental illness than other groups. Parents may be reluctant or unsure how to seek help for their children.

Using the combined $189 million from the three education relief packages passed in 2020 and 2021, schools can do a lot to embrace the diversity of their student populations while working to provide equitable access to mental health support.

Hire more mental health professionals

For students who have family problems or don’t feel comfortable discussing their mental health concerns at home, it’s crucial to have professionals on hand. Psychologists and social workers serve as trusted ears and observers of what at-risk students are experiencing. Guidance counselors providing college and career advice can support overburdened high schoolers.

66% of school leaders currently plan to add specialized staff, including counselors, social workers and reading specialists, to their staff roster. Are you one of them? Partner with us to recruit specialists for your school.

Work towards lessening the learning gap

Learning loss is top of mind for all educators, and it has an important link to mental health. Students often see achievement as a measure of self-worth. Those who struggle with learning disabilities, feel they are performing poorly, or don’t have access to resources like tablets or tutors may exhibit signs of anxiety or depression that can be addressed before they worsen.

School leaders say they’re making a lot of investments in this area, with 75% saying they will spend American Rescue Plan funds on summer learning, 44% on high-intensity tutoring, and 62% to buy students devices or connect them to the internet.

Pay educators adequately

Educators are working harder than ever, and many are burnt out. Reducing the learning gap will take a lot of extra time and dedication from both students and teachers - so make sure they’re being paid for a job well done in a very tough environment! You won’t be alone - 42% of school leaders are adding learning time this year by paying staff to work longer days.

Provide culturally-sensitive resources

During the pandemic, educators like Teachers On Demand’s own Ayanna Freelon started to take an SEL approach in the classroom; for example, she does ‘temperature checks’ to show she values the students behind the schoolwork and encourage honest self-expression.

When not culturally-informed, such mindfulness exercises can backfire. For example, instructing students whose communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 to breathe feels inadequate.

Administrators can educate themselves on trauma-informed SEL, put screening measures in place to take the onus off of students less likely to seek help, and ensure students have access to a professional whose life experience reflects theirs. 52% of school leaders currently say they are investing in SEL training for educators.

Make movement a priority

For many students, the pandemic has made movement less possible or appealing. Not only does exercise help mental health and well-being, it has long-term effects that can ward off depression. It’s worth a second look: How can we make PE classes and activities that students love to attend?

The way forward to help students cope

The same way not all mental health diagnoses are created equal, no school’s strategy should be the same.

Tailoring yours to be age-appropriate and meet the specific needs of your student population is no easy task in this difficult year. But at the end of the day, there may be one silver lining.

“Before 2020, the minority community didn’t discuss mental health as much,” says Logan. “2020 taught forced our families to spend more time together, and as a result, we are more likely to discuss and address mental health concerns.”

                  Keep the conversation going at your school: