A National Survey on School Mental Health, COVID-19 and School Reopening

By Duncan Young, CEO, Effective School Solutions

For months, experts across the education and mental health landscapes have been speculating as to what the impact of COVID-19 and continuing disruption in schooling would mean for student mental health. While there has been plenty of hypothesizing that the length of the pandemic and associated uncertainty would have a deleterious effect on student mental health challenges, there has been a deficit of hard survey data to answer some of these key questions. With that in mind, Effective School Solutions has recently completed a nationwide survey of educators to answer some key questions about COVID-19, mental health, and the return to school. Questions that we were looking to answer with this survey included:

· What is the level of student mental health challenges districts are observing, and how does that compare to a year ago?

· What is the level of teacher mental health challenges districts are observing and how does that compare to a year ago?

· What are the actions that districts are taking to address the mental health challenges they are seeing?

· What gaps are they observing in their districts’ mental health safety net?

With that context established, let’s get to the results!

Who Were the Respondents?

Respondents to this survey included 415 educators, broken down as follows:

  • Clinician/Counselor/Therapist 44%

Insight #1: Student Mental Health Challenges are Acute, and Getting Worse

The survey responses clearly show that educators are observing intense student mental health challenges, with 83% of educators reporting moderate to significant mental health challenges with students.

More alarming, educators are reporting a shift in mental health challenges vs. the pre-pandemic period 1 year ago. 71% of respondents report that the level of mental health challenges for their student body is either “Somewhat Worse” or “Significantly Worse.”

This data supports the speculation that the combined effects of the pandemic and associated school closures- academic stressors, family stressors, and social isolation- are degrading the overall mental health of students.

Insight #2: Educators are Struggling as Much as Students

A second key finding is that the data indicates that teachers are struggling with their personal mental health just as much as students. We asked educators the same questions regarding the mental health of teachers as we did for students, and the results were striking.

In total, 84% of educators reported moderate to significant mental health challenges with teachers, a number strikingly similar to what was reported for students.

Notably, however, educators reported an even bigger change over the last year in teacher mental health than for students, with 85% of respondents reporting that teacher mental health is either “Somewhat Worse” or “Significantly Worse” than a year ago.

The following comment received as part of the survey sums up how many teacher respondents feel:

“Honestly, many of my colleagues and I are already burnt out. It is only September. Many of us have cried in and out of the workplace, struggled with the even growing hurdles of hybrid education, and taking time to breathe. I have been teaching 10 years and have never worked this hard at my job since my first 1–2 years of teaching. I am aware of the many challenges for students with their physical/mental health. However, I am also overwhelmed as a human and the constant changes are not sustainable. It is a terribly challenging balancing act to support my students’ academic as well as SEL needs as I am a licensed teacher, not a licensed mental health professional.”

Insight #3: Districts are Relying on a Multipronged Approach to Address Student Mental Health Challenges

Next, respondents were asked what initiatives their district had in place to support student mental health in the COVID-impacted back to school environment. Respondents reported the following:

These results are notable in a couple of ways. First, while SEL and professional development were the most commonly reported initiatives taken to address student mental health, this could reflect initiatives that were in place pre-pandemic. Second, it’s notable that almost 50% of districts have strengthened and expanded their counseling, clinical and therapeutic support to serve the greater number of students presenting with mental health issues. And finally, it was surprising to see that only 6% of respondents reported some form of mental health screening, at a time where early identification of mental health challenges, across a wider body of students, is key.

Especially concerning in this data was the number of respondents who reported in comments that districts had no real plan for supporting mental health. Sample comments to this point included, “My district has put zero efforts in place to support the mental health of the staff”, and “What mental health support initiative?”

Representative Comments:

“We have brought in many more social work interns to support our families and have established a mental health hotline. Time will tell about effectiveness.”

“Increased number of elementary school social workers and increased professional development in regard to social-emotional health of students and staff. Added meetings involving various groups to discuss concerns.”

“All staff started training in trauma informed practices. We will be having follow up trainings throughout the year. Our social workers are sending out monthly newsletters to staff to share trauma informed and social-emotional learning strategies, along with self-care tips for teachers.”

Insight #4: Significant Challenges and Gaps in the Mental Health Safety Net Still Exist

Finally, district respondents report that there are still significant challenges in their ability to serve the increased prevalence of mental health challenges seen in students. Respondents were asked about a number of potential challenge areas and to state what their biggest concerns were with respect to supporting the mental health of students. Here were their responses:

There is a lot to unpack in this data. The data clearly shows that the biggest ongoing concern for educators is the continued degradation in the mental health of students, both students with existing mental health issues but also students presenting with challenges who weren’t previously on the school’s radar screen.

Simultaneously, most respondents expressed concern about adequate resourcing to support the increased number of mental health challenges, with 2/3 stating that they were concerned about sufficient staff to serve students, and almost half reporting concerns about funding.

Finally, districts expressed concern about developing some of the specialized skills to deliver mental health during the twin challenges of a trauma-inducing pandemic and in a virtual learning environment, with almost half reporting concerns about implementing tele-mental health care and even more reporting a need for increased staff capacity in providing trauma informed care.

Representative Comments:

“The current gaps are that the district still operates from a place of ‘we have a small number of students who require mental health support’ instead of ‘every single person who steps foot in our building is in need of a level of mental health support and we need to meet it.”

“Mental health is talked about as a value, but there is very little that is actually done to support and promote mental health among students and staff. I think my district is at a loss for how to implement effective protocols. It also takes a long time for efforts to be implemented, or they are implemented haphazardly.”

“Not enough resources for the students that really need extensive mental health support.”

“Not enough staff. School counselor caseloads are high, and my district has no funding for social workers or other support staff.”

Summary

In total, this data provides one of the first and most wide-ranging glimpses as to what educators believe about the COVID-19 pandemic and associated school closures. The respondents to this survey are stating clearly that they are seeing the long-forecasted challenge with student (and educator) mental health and that they need help. It’s never been more important for districts to have a clear action plan that includes proven clinical programming, professional development, and SEL for addressing mental health needs. For more information on creating an action plan, read more about the C.O.P.E. Mental Health Planning Framework, available here.

About Effective School Solutions:

Founded in 2009, Effective School Solutions partners with districts to provide in-school clinical programming for students with emotional and behavioral challenges. Follow us on medium.com to get our latest content.

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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