Pandemic Related Mental Health Crisis Hits U.S. Schools
Education Policy Brief #62 | By: Lynn Waldsmith | December 21, 2021
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Therapy dogs. Sensory rooms with comfy furniture, tents and weighted blankets. Playing with sand or building with Legos. These are the kinds of things that many schools throughout the country are making available to students when they need a break or when it just becomes too hard to cope in the classroom. But it’s not about fun and games.
Recently, three major pediatric groups — the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association – announced that the state of mental health of children and adolescents in this country should be considered a national emergency.
Mental health problems among kids have doubled during the pandemic, according to Karestan Koenen, a Harvard professor of psychiatric epidemiology. About one in four children is experiencing depression, and one in five is experiencing anxiety. Teachers are reporting increased behavior problems among younger children and substance use is rising among teens.
Most experts agree that the impact of pandemic-fueled social isolation and family instability is largely to blame, and some children are suffering from COVID-19-related grief. The National Institutes of Health says that more than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary or secondary caregiver, with children of color being impacted disproportionately.
Some students feel hopeless. The CDC reports emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents jumped 31 percent in 2020 compared with 2019. In February and March of this year, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts were 51 percent higher among girls aged 12-17 than during the same period in 2019.
While therapy dogs are nice, actual therapists would be even better. Yet schools across the nation are not only coping with teacher shortages but with shortages of social workers, counselors and psychologists.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends one professional for every 500 students, yet Maine is the only state that meets that standard. The average among all states is actually one school psychologist for every 1,211 students. When the NASP surveyed members this fall, more than half of the respondents said their districts intended to hire mental health specialists. However, the shortage of available professionals has prompted some districts to hire outside vendors for mental health positions, while others are training existing staff.
In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Koenen said schools need to screen for anxiety and depression in students, provide resources, and somehow get more counselors. She also recommends that teachers be trained to recognize possible mental health problems in their students, so they can refer them for help.
“You don’t want it to fall on teachers to treat them,” she cautioned. “That is not the teacher’s job.”
Despite the sobering picture of children’s mental health, there are some good things to come out of the pandemic. First, with so much focus being directed at the problem, the stigma surrounding mental health is fading. Schools are openly talking about the importance of mental health with students and staff, a talking point that was essentially only whispered in the halls not too long ago. Many districts, reeling from the exhaustion of road-mapping “the new normal” of in-person learning, have provided students and staff “mental health” days off or extended holiday breaks.
Indeed, mental well-being needs to be the foundation for the recovery from the pandemic, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has said. Toward that end, another piece of good news is that the pandemic has prompted the federal government to provide historic levels of relief funding for education.
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Pandemic funding to schools totals $190 billion, more than four times the amount the Education Dept. typically spends on K-12 schools annually. The American Rescue Plan Act and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, combined with other 2020 pandemic relief funds for schools, provides education and health grants over the next few years, some of which can be spent on mental health. Local school districts can choose how to spend mental health investments, with most opting for staff training, wellness screenings and curriculum dedicated to social-emotional learning (SEL).
Social-emotional-learning is a teaching philosophy that is designed to help students manage their feelings and show empathy for others. Yet some parent groups oppose SEL and suicide prevention programs, claiming SEL is being used to indoctrinate students and that suicide shouldn’t be “advertised”. In addition, some schools are monitoring student computers while they are at school for distress signals or administering mental health screenings to all students, which has raised some privacy concerns.
The mental health crisis is pervasive on college campuses as well. A March report from the CDC found that 57 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 had recently experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Rep. David Trone (D-Maryland) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), have introduced a bill to establish a national commission to study mental health concerns at institutions of higher learning.
The Departments of Education and Justice recently released a fact sheet that calls for colleges and universities to develop trauma-informed crisis management procedures, provide access to mental health services, offer policy modifications for individual students when appropriate and train employees to respond to signs of distress. It also reminds institutions that students with mental health disabilities are protected by federal civil rights laws, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
As children, adolescents and young adults soon embark on their third year of learning during the pandemic, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said that it would take an “all-of-society” effort to address mental health, and urged action.
“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place,” Murthy said earlier this month.
Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available
Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health:
CDC Report — Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, August 2020–February 2021:
Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States — Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:
Dept. of Education report — Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs:
Fact Sheet — Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Students at Risk of Self-Harm in the Era of COVID-19: