Managing the Mental Health Crisis: Preparing for the 2022–2023 School Year
By Effective School Solutions
As the COVID-19 pandemic descended on the country in early spring of 2020 school districts everywhere turned on a dime to completely reconfigure the school day. The abrupt and unprecedented transition to remote learning was a move no one was ready for, yet teachers and staff heroically did their best in a fundamentally bad situation. Across the country educators transformed their living rooms into classrooms, and as they valiantly soldiered on, many had the same thought: things just couldn’t get any worse.
And yet, when the current school year got underway, many revised that assessment. If remote schooling was hard, life after remote schooling brought even more challenges. Although teachers had returned to the classroom and were back on familiar ground, the serious toll the pandemic had taken on students was apparent on Day 1. Now, months later, experts caution that the aftermath will continue to be felt for the foreseeable future. Some estimate the mental health effects will linger for the next several years. That may sound like a grim assessment, but there’s a hopeful message within it. It suggests that students, teachers, and our schools can bounce back. But what we do now is critical.
The Mental Health Emergency Is Now in Full View
By now, the fact that our nation’s youth are in the midst of a mental health crisis is understood by almost everyone. Last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a state of emergency concerning our children’s mental health.
Not long after, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy issued a rare public advisory titled “Protecting Youth Mental Health.” The report was designed to bring attention to the crisis and to serve as a call to action. And in March in his State of the Union Address to the nation, President Biden referred directly to the crisis, stating that young people’s “lives and education have been turned upside-down.”
Experts agree that our young people’s mental health was already an urgent concern. There are ample statistics suggesting that the situation had been escalating for at least a decade. For instance, researchers found that from 2009 to 2019, “the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%; the share seriously considering attempting suicide increased by 36%; and the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44%.” The pandemic’s arrival made a bad situation worse.
The pandemic has been a widespread, and drawn-out trauma for children, and the effects have been most severe on our most vulnerable kids. They weathered hardships of all kinds — the loss of routines and normalcy, of in-person interactions with friends, teachers and loved ones. Low-income youth who counted on meals at school lost access to regular breakfasts and lunches, and those who received regular mental health services may have had them curtailed or canceled altogether. And that’s just a quick rundown. The complete losses and the scope of the impact are beyond calculation.
Yet if there’s anything like a bright side to all of this, it’s that the crisis of our youth’s mental health can no longer be ignored.
Schools Are Central to Addressing the Crisis
A fact sheet recently issued by the White House outlines the administration’s efforts to address the problem across many areas of society, including school-based intervention services and supports. “Half of all mental disorders begin before the age of 14. And when systems act to promote well-being at early developmental stages, youth reap the mental and emotional benefits for years to come.”
Specifically, the administration calls for expanding access to mental health support in schools:
“The President has committed to doubling the number of school-based mental health professionals. The Department of Education (ED) will continue to support states, school districts, colleges and universities, in using relief funds — including the more than $160 billion invested by the American Rescue Plan in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) — to address the mental health needs of students, including by training, recruiting, and retaining more school- and college and university-based mental health professionals.”
Linking mental health services with schooling makes sense for a variety of reasons. Mental health and school performance are intimately associated. It’s hard for young people to succeed academically when they’re plagued by unaddressed mental health issues. Proximity is another reason: school is where young people spend the majority of their day. And school means easy, equitable access. Because of cost and other barriers, not all families otherwise have access to mental health interventions for their children.
In a report put together by Inseparable, a mental health advocacy coalition, Sharon Hoover, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health, outlines the role schools have to play:
“One of the most effective approaches to get youth the help they need is to meet them where they’re at — in schools — with comprehensive mental health systems. Comprehensive school mental health systems work in partnership with youth, families, and communities to promote a positive school climate, to help develop life skills, enhance knowledge of mental health, and to provide more intensive services for youth with greater challenges. School mental health services lower barriers to care and reduce inequities for underserved youth.”
So we know schools are where we can reach young people, provide them with services, and help them thrive. But the question is are our schools ready? And if they’re not, how do we get them there?
Planning for Next Year Now Is Key
However much we may be hoping that next year will be a big improvement over the current one, one thing is certain: it won’t be any better unless we plan for it now. The pandemic’s mental health toll won’t simply recede on its own. Therefore, planning for the 2022–23 school year as early and as thoroughly as possible is crucial to ensuring next year goes more smoothly and productively for students, teachers, staff, and families.
Melissa Callen, Effective School Solutions Regional Director, says a central area that districts need to be thinking about now is professional development and how they’re going to support their staff in the year ahead. “Districts need to be asking: What does our staff need in order to build themselves up again? And how do we give them the resources to manage mental health in the classroom?” She says that teachers must be equipped to recognize the nuances and changes in behavior that might be red flags. Even high-achieving students who may never have seemed particularly vulnerable, may now be experiencing anxiety and depression.
Callen stresses that a critical piece of the planning requires engaging in conversations with staff. As administrators look ahead, they need input from teachers, paraprofessionals, and other staff who are present with students on a daily basis and can see most clearly what’s working and what isn’t. “It’s so important that all levels have a voice,” she says. Listening and soliciting input have always been important for planning, but right now it’s absolutely critical for addressing the challenges in our schools.
Marta Audino, Director of Student Services and Programs for Hamilton Township School District in New Jersey, says her district was proactive and took planning very seriously ahead of the current school year. Some of the initiatives the district put into place included forming a wellness committee consisting of parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators to assess what students, families, and staff needed; creating a multilingual 24-hour hotline for students in distress; extending hours for guidance counselors; and bringing in additional clinical support.
Identifying Gaps in the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
Fifteen years ago, the number of students in a given district who were experiencing suicidal ideation or engaging in self-harming behaviors was relatively low. In the current crisis, however, these and other alarming behaviors have increased significantly, and schools need to be prepared and able to provide effective interventions.
Increasingly, districts across the country understand the need for a multi-tiered system of support to address the depth and breadth of students’ mental health needs. In the current crisis, there are bound to be gaps, and partnering with outside providers, such as Effective School Solutions, is one way districts are finding to bridge these gaps to meet the escalating need.
In order to identify the ways their systems are falling short, districts must first have a clear understanding of their current strengths and weaknesses. Here, too, listening to the people who work directly with students can provide insights. And, says Melissa Callen, acknowledging that the fallout from the pandemic isn’t going away tomorrow allows districts to think long-term. “They may think they can’t afford to increase their services, but given that this isn’t a short-term problem, they can’t afford not to.”
Determine the Roles You Need to Hire For
Staffing shortages have been a pervasive problem for schools across the country this year. As a result, everyone has been asked to do more at a time when they already feel pushed to the breaking point. Ensuring schools are sufficiently staffed — with teachers, paraprofessionals, and mental health professionals — is one of the most important ways district leaders can ensure that next year runs more smoothly and effectively for everyone.
And now is time to fill those spots — not during or after summer break, when the talent pool will have dwindled. Accurately assessing needs and then taking action now will go a long way toward building the capacity districts need.
Planning for Life After ESSER
The Federal government’s COVID relief packages in 2020 and 2021 provided more than $160 billion to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund for the nation’s schools. Allotted in three separate payments, the last of the funds must be used by September 30, 2024. Districts can spend the funds for a variety of purposes, including the provision of mental health services.
A question district leaders everywhere are asking themselves is, What happens when the money runs out? Right now, there’s no clear answer, and different districts will handle the situation differently. When it comes to spending on mental health, ideally districts will be able to clearly demonstrate positive outcomes as a result of ESSER spending, and this will enable them to justify continued investment in children’s mental health, even after the government funding runs out.
Nobody would have wished for the current the situation. But perhaps it can serve as a “teachable moment” as we recognize that mental health care for our youth isn’t a luxury. In fact, their future depends on it.