As children return to school this fall, educators will be prepared to deal with the continued mental health impact of the pandemic’s upheaval.

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As children return to school this fall, educators will be prepared to deal with the continued mental health impact of the pandemic’s upheaval.

martinedoucet/Getty Images

As the new school year begins, teachers in many schools across the country are adding new elements to their routines. It’s a mental health check-in with students. The idea is to open up a conversation with children about how they are feeling emotionally so that they can lead to help before problems escalate into crisis.

Dr. Tami Benton, chief psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said: .

Many schools Benton works with spend less time focusing on schoolwork in the first few weeks of the school year and more time checking on their children’s mental health and school readiness. They’re actually starting to develop their own approaches to assessing a child’s social and emotional developmental status,” she says.

The new approach comes after two and a half years of difficult conditions during the pandemic. Children’s lives have been disrupted by the bouts of distance learning and the economic stress of many families, further exacerbating the mental health precarious state of children in the United States.

In 2020, the CDC reported an increase in the percentage of children showing up to emergency rooms with mental health crises, including serious suicide attempts, eating disorders, and aggressive behavior.

“What concerns us most is the number of significant self-harm and suicidal ideation we’ve seen in the emergency room.” 40% increase in visits to

In the fall of 2020, three professional organizations, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, declared child mental health conditions a national emergency.

When children returned to classrooms after a year of virtual learning last fall, schools hoped a return to face-to-face classes would ease children’s emotional problems. I actually found the opposite.

“We see many children with heightened levels of anxiety and stress, and students exhibiting mental health symptoms that were not present before the pandemic,” said Robert Mullaney, principal of Millis Public Schools in Massachusetts. “Suicidal thoughts increased.”

These experiences have inspired educators to be proactive at the start of school this year.

Effects of a national crisis

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2021-22 school year, 76% of the country’s public schools report increased concern about students exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, depression and trauma. And only about half of schools said they were well equipped to address the mental health needs of their students.

Life may be beginning to return to normal, but as a result of the trauma and chronic stress they’ve experienced over the past two years, many children struggle to feel motivated, says Cohen’s Children’s Medical’s Children. and Dr. Vera Feuer, an adolescent psychiatrist. A Long Island center that oversees hospital emergency psychiatry, emergency care, and school mental health services.

“So there’s really this after-effect, a feeling of numbness, lack of motivation, not being able to get back into those routines. It can be the lingering effects from the initial stress and trauma,” she said. increase.

Kendall Roach, a therapist in Jefferson City, Missouri, who works with children through telemedicine company Babylon Health, said many American families are still under financial strain, and parents have a huge impact on their children. Others have lost their homes, adds Roach.

“We have kids who are technically homeless,” she says. “They live in tents. They wake up, go to their family’s house to shower, have a hot breakfast if possible, and then go to school.”

the school is actively

The U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendations on youth mental health last year have helped raise public awareness and encourage a more open conversation about children’s mental health, Benton says. Educators have also found that students struggle academically unless their mental health is addressed.

In fact, new data shows that schoolchildren’s test scores have dropped significantly during the pandemic, the biggest reading decline in 30 years.

“I have a third grader who has to read to learn,” says Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO of Teach for America, which primarily serves marginalized communities. “But I also know that if my son is not happy, he will not be able to read unless his brain is ready for learning. It means we have to meet.”

That recognition has prepared schools to pay attention to the mental health of their students. Many also work closely with health care providers to educate staff on how to incorporate mental health discussions into their daily lives.

“We have spent a lot of time this past year and summer helping teachers, administrators and parents figure out how to help them and give them the tools to help. . [students] Deal with it,” Kahle says.

“Teachers need to be really equipped to approach the classroom in a trauma-based way,” says Villanueva Beard. “What that means is that when a student walks into the classroom, the teacher can set up the system so they can get on the device and share their feelings right away.”

That’s exactly what psychologist Janice Beale advised a teacher with whom she works closely at a Houston school.

“Every morning, [for] Give students five minutes to check in and share how they’re feeling that particular day,” she says.

Beal doesn’t think teachers, who have already stepped up and done more during the pandemic, should become mental health professionals, Beal explained. increase.

“I want my class to understand what mental health issues there are, be able to recognize them, and be able to ask for help.”

New York schools are integrating mental health discussions and healthy habits as “kind of the fabric of today,” says Feuer.

“For example, in the classroom, give children a little time, focus, awareness, and a space where they can voice their concerns,” she explains.

Schools also help students, especially younger ones, learn to label emotions and talk about them. I will add.

“Unfortunately, there have been many other things that have shaken children’s sense of security about being in school, such as gun violence at the end of the year,” she adds.

Therefore, having an open conversation about mental health can help children cope better.

new funding

But schools also need additional resources to connect children who are struggling with mental health care.

“We’re hearing from more and more teachers that they’re really struggling to meet their children’s mental health needs in the school setting,” says Benton.

The recent influx of federal dollars to provide school-based mental health care has certainly helped, she added.

Mullaney says it has been able to hire more behavioral and mental health professionals over the past year to help meet the growing needs of its students. But he knows many school districts that are still struggling to recruit new staff.

Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced an additional $87 million in grants to address youth mental health, including school-based mental health.

However, school districts across the country are just beginning to tap into some of these recent funds. “I think it will take some time for the implementation and changes related to these to happen,” Benton said.

But she hopes that this national focus, bipartisan support in Congress in addressing youth mental health, and a more open conversation on the topic will begin to help the children who need it most. I hope

“People are engaged, engaged, and new projects are on the way,” says Benton. “People are trying new ways to provide care. More young people are becoming involved as advocates for their own mental health care. I think it’s really made a difference in supporting mental health.”

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