“I Am Who I Am Today Because of My Social Worker”: The Importance of Mental Health Staff in Schools
While we might have joked before the Covid-19 pandemic that some kids would do anything to get out of school, school closures have not only taken a toll on student learning but their mental health, too. Although the student mental health crisis existed long before 2020, the situation is much more dire in its wake.
In fact, many students found that they missed school during the pandemic: Closures “cut off an estimated 55 million children and teenagers from school staff members whose open doors and compassionate advice helped them build self-esteem, navigate the pressures of adolescence and cope with trauma.”
Key among these staff are licensed school counselors, social workers, and psychologists. Schools need mental health professionals now more than ever to address students’ social and emotional well-being.
What mental health issues are kids dealing with?
Distance learning has impacted K-12 students’ mental health in a number of ways. Many have experienced a surge in stress and anxiety due to:
- Feelings of uncertainty as parents struggle with illness or unemployment, caring for relatives, or finding childcare while working,
- Feelings of instability in their home environment without the possibility to leave,
- Separation from friends and hobbies that help social and emotional development,
- A sense of loss when coming-of-age milestones like graduation are postponed or cancelled.
According to the CDC, 1 in 6 students have enough symptoms to meet the criteria for one or more childhood mental disorders. The most commonly reported include anxiety disorders, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Such anxiety, behavioral, or depressive disorders increase in prevalence based on the child’s age (up to age 17) and degree to which the child’s caregiver is also experiencing poor mental/emotional health.
Unaddressed mental health concerns can cause children to struggle both within and outside the school environment as well as reinforce learning losses now that we look towards back-to-school. A 2018 study found that among children (aged 3-17) with anxiety, behavioral problems, and depression, “nearly 80% of those with depression received treatment in the previous year, compared with 59.3% of those with anxiety problems and 53.5% of those with behavioral/conduct problems.”
Though the numbers on treatment of children with depression is encouraging, the other categories leave a lot of room for improvement. Now, the rising number of children with mental health issues puts schools in danger of being unable to support their student bodies without enough qualified mental health professionals.
A systemic approach to mental health in schools
One key statistic shows the importance of building a wealth of mental health resources in schools: According to the Child Mind Institute, half of all mental illness occurs before age 14, which increases to 75% by age 24.
Schools that devote resources towards an infrastructure for identifying at-risk students early have a better chance of supporting their development into happy, healthy adults.
This is more crucial than ever in the wake of Covid-19, which at a minimum played havoc with children’s and teens’ typical patterns, and in the worst-case scenario, caused major disruptions in their home and family life. Though the renewed focus on mental health in schools is currently reactive by necessity, building a stronger team of mental health professionals means schools can provide proactive screening and prevention services in the future.
K-12 teachers and administrators are no stranger to some of the most common signs of mental illness in the classroom, which include mood and behavioral changes, difficulty concentrating, physical symptoms like frequent headaches and stomachaches, and substance abuse. But though leadership and educational staff can make some adjustments to help students who are struggling, licensed mental health professionals are better placed to address the root causes.
These professionals provide a network of support to address the needs of the student body from all angles:
- Counselors can help students develop a toolkit of coping mechanisms and overcome obstacles that affect their ability to get the most out of school.
- Psychologists and social workers can support families in the midst of crisis and loss and implement classroom interventions when necessary.
- Social workers are particularly well-placed to connect students and families with community resources to ensure the student continues to thrive outside of school walls.
Mental health staff make a difference in students’ lives
Most importantly, mental health staff can have a far-reaching impact on children’s adaptive skills and long-term well-being.
Part of this is meeting them where they are. The pandemic forced mental health professionals to adapt to means of digital connection, like supporting students via text message or video call.
Schools can ensure these modes stay open for students who feel more comfortable accessing help this way, even as a return to school means they can connect with counselors, social workers, and psychologists in person.
Celine, who attended high school in downstate New York, had regular appointments with a social worker for three years, from ages 14-17. She sought help from the school due to a stressful home life, which involved a parent with mental health issues and alcoholism.
“My school social worker saved my life. She helped me understand that what I was going through as a teenager wasn’t my fault, and to focus on the things that were under my control, rather than what was not,” says Celine.
“I am who I am today because of her—well-adjusted with strong coping skills. She helped me build back my self-worth, learn how to establish healthy boundaries, and give myself permission to experience joy even when things are hard.”