Original article written by Angela Jefferson for the Gotham Gazette
The Surgeon General made a public advisory that indicated the pandemic has accelerated a mental health crisis for children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) have also issued a bold declaration of a national emergency in children’s mental health.
Those who work with students in schools are now well into their second year on the frontlines of covid, where the most vulnerable communities disproportionately lost loved ones, income, and security. Covid’s devastating threat to children’s long-term resilience and wellness is clear: according to the National Institutes of Health, more than 120,000 children under the age of 18 in the United States have lost a primary caregiver to COVID-19, 65% of whom are children of color. This trauma is often provoked and exacerbated by economic insecurity and systemic racism.
In order to secure our children’s future, effective funding for in-school mental health care is a key strategy. It will also require that those social workers have critical insights into the stressors affecting everyone in the school ecosystem. Children are not alone in their pain. Teachers and academic staff have had their share of anxiety and loss throughout the pandemic. As we see widespread understaffing in schools, we need to acknowledge this stress amid the additional pressures of children returning to school full-time.
During last year’s hybrid schedules, Ms. Jefferson’s team of social workers stayed close to the 30,000 students they serve in New York City schools in person or via telehealth. This helped them smooth students’ return to the classroom and cope with setbacks. But a broader population of children did not have the benefit of preventive services to encourage emotional regulation and social-emotional skills development, so the work continues to ensure they adapt to the demands of in-person schooling.
A new McKinsey study shows that students in schools where 75% of children are Black or from financially-insecure families are falling further behind pre-pandemic math and reading than those in predominantly white and high-income schools. These students are also almost twice as likely to be missing school days. The study points out how important it is for students to have caring adults in school to help them reconnect socially and focus on their academic goals.
Many children are struggling. This all places pressure on the adults in the room – teachers, principals, support staff, and social workers. Given these pervasive needs, how do we structure a support system that is responsive to them and enables regular, predictable, and ongoing growth? The author provides some suggestions:
First, providing supervision and training. The clinical supervisor is a critical frontline resource for a social worker and should not be stretched across too many sites. Second, conferences, workshops and trainings can revitalize skills and creativity – and should be promoted on an ongoing basis. Third, broadening networks of peer support. Informal networks – among schools and nonprofits – can build community ties and offer collegial support. Lastly, making time for self-care is vital. Social workers experience “vicarious trauma,” holding the stress of the children they serve and, often, as sounding boards for their colleagues.
As we mount one of the most important crusades of our lifetimes, let’s support the counselors whose expertise and advocacy will guide us.
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