Nearly a year into the pandemic, mental health is a simmering crisis for many of the nation’s schoolchildren, partly hidden by isolation but increasingly evident in the distress of parents, the worries of counselors and an early body of research. Mental health problems account for a growing proportion of children’s visits to hospital emergency rooms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From March, when the pandemic was declared, to October, the figure was up 31% for those 12 to 17 years old and 24% for children ages 5 to 11 compared with the same period in 2019.
Lily Villa, 16, a junior at Mabton High School in Washington state, said she struggled with anxiety before the pandemic, but it is worse. Adding another layer is the cultural taboo, she said: Mental health issues are not widely discussed in her Latino community. “A lot of the time it is just the uncertainty of school,” she said. “When am I going to be able to go back? How are my grades going to be affected not only because I am doing online school but because of my mental health? My peers have struggled the same way — some of them even worse,” she said. Students who are most vulnerable are often most affected — tending to have greater family disruption and economic hardship, less access to mental health services and fewer technological devices for connecting to school. Experts point out that students can have very different experiences of isolating at home. Some are doing better academically — free from social anxieties, peer pressures and distractions, and getting more sleep. Some have bonded more with their families. But others are visibly struggling: kids who don’t get out of bed, who stop eating, who harm themselves or withdraw from families and friends. Kids who fail their courses or no longer want to plug in.
With so many students learning remotely, problems can be harder to spot. Often, teachers and counselors don’t see the faces of their students during Zoom sessions. Teenagers in particular don’t turn their laptop video cameras on — not wanting to show their homes in the background or feeling awkward about showing themselves. “It’s even more difficult to build trust and see a student’s nonverbals if all you’re seeing is a black screen on Zoom,” said John Nwosu, a school counselor in the Atlanta area. “It’s difficult for them to get the mental health support they need,” Nwosu said. “We have to be more intentional and active.”There is also the added element of not knowing which students are experiencing abuse and trauma in their households. Based on the trend over 20 years of tracking cases, tens of thousands of abused children have not come to the attention of authorities during the pandemic, said Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, an accrediting body for the country’s 900 children’s advocacy centers.
For students of color, the pandemic has taken on another dimension because it hit harder in Black and Hispanic communities. And then George Floyd was killed, focusing the country’s attention on its history of systemic racism. “They are trying to manage both of those things . . . and grief,” said Erlanger Turner, a psychologist and assistant professor at Pepperdine University. Some have reeled, too, over the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump extremists — and the differences in police response between the riot and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Amidst all of the added pressures of the pandemic, school districts are making an effort to increase resources for young people in a myriad of ways. In New York, city and school officials announced a mental health initiative that will target 27 neighborhoods most affected by covid-19, with a first phase focused on roughly 380,000 students in 830 schools. Plans include student mental health screenings and the hiring of 150 additional social workers. “You can’t succeed academically if you’re struggling internally,” a tweet from the mayor’s office said.
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