09 February 2021
Claire Brennan Tillberg's 11-year-old daughter has been hospitalized twice in recent months after sharing that she was having suicidal thoughts. The Massachusetts girl has autism, depression and anxiety.
Although her daughter had been hospitalized before, Tillberg said things worsened when the pandemic hit. Her school went online and she could no longer meet with counselors in person. Suddenly, the structure and support that help many children keep a sense of normalcy were gone.
Studies have shown that depression increases during teen years. One out of every 13 high school students has attempted suicide and at least half of children with mental illness do not get treatment.
When schools closed across the U.S. in mid-March of 2020, it separated students from other students, along with advisors, teachers and other adults at school. Additionally, for many students, school was the only place to get mental health services.
Wenimo Okoya is a health education researcher and program director. She is head of high school implementation for the Jed Foundation. The organization helps schools nationally develop programs to support mental health and prevent suicide.
Okoya says research has not yet linked teen suicides to the school closures. But she says social connections are hugely important for students.
"One of the things that we know promotes mental health and ameliorates suicide risk is social connectedness for young people. And we're finding that, because of the isolation that COVID-19 has put us all in, it's harder for students to connect with their peers, with their teachers."
For more than 10 years, suicide rates among students aged 10 and up in the U.S. have been on the rise. But experts say the pandemic has brought new worries to young people's lives along with social isolation.
From mid-March through October 2020, mental health-related visits to hospital emergency rooms rose for U.S. children ages 5-11 and 12-17. That information comes from a recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Nisha Sachdev is with the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at George Washington University. She says that during the pandemic, both nationally and worldwide, children and families have been experiencing anxiety and fear for many reasons. They include loss of income and loss of housing or having to move around. The children can also experience long periods of separation from or loss of family members with COVID-19.
Research and opinion studies in the U.S., Asia, Australia, Canada, China and Europe have shown overall worsening mental health in children and teens since the pandemic began. In an October report by the World Health Organization involving 130 countries, more than 60 percent reported changes to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and teens.
In the U.S., school closures have led to a loss of mental health services for many students.
Okoya notes that students are also experiencing things like internet connection issues. Others may share one computer with their brothers and sisters. Or they may live in a small space with their family and cannot speak privately about their feelings.
What schools are doing
So how have schools reacted to the changes? And what can they do moving forward?
For students with special needs, telehealth has made a big difference, says Okoya. Telehealth is the process by which some healthcare services are provided through the internet.
But for the main school population, mental health experts agree about the need for schools to provide structure and routines for students. They also say building a sense of connection and belonging between students and with supportive adults is critical.
That includes teachers or other adults at school having daily check-ins with students. Okoya says this is important – even if the child's camera is off or if the student does not share their specific problems.
"Opening up the line of communication is really important – even if it's not about the bigger thing. That young person knowing that there's an adult who cares about them, who is reaching out to them, who's making the time to talk to them is really, really important."
How check-ins and other emotional supports are carried out differ from school to school.
Okoya says the Jed Foundation works with some schools that have put in place "breakout rooms." This involves breaking classes into smaller online "rooms" so that students can share more openly.
Sachdev says some schools she works with in Washington, D.C. have done a great job with check-ins. They have chosen a teacher or other school employee to work with students and families. So each student has a point person they check in with every day and they do not have to search for someone they can talk to. The system also helps parents or guardians. They no longer have to check in with several different teachers.
Other teachers use a mood meter, a kind of map that divides feelings into colors, during advisory periods each day. And, since students have several class periods per day, their other teachers can do the same if they are able to, Okoya says.
Overall, the pandemic has proven that social-emotional learning is just as important as learning other subjects, says Sachdev.
Experts like Okoya and Sachdev want the public to understand that mental healthcare is more than just the relationship between a student and a counselor.
Every adult who has contact with a young person may be able to take steps to improve their mental health, Okoya says. Even a bus driver, for example, can urge a student to ask for help.
Sachdev explains that schools must not be the only ones ensuring good mental health for students and families. Support, solutions, and services are also needed from other fields, including healthcare, the workforce, child welfare, justice, and others, she says.
I'm Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English with additional reporting from the Associated Press. Bryan Lynn was the editor.
Words in This Story
anxiety – n. fear or nervousness about what might happen
teen – n. a person between the ages of 12 and 19
implementation – n. the act of beginning to do or use something, such as a plan
ameliorate – v. to make (something, such as a problem) better or less painful
isolation – n. the state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others
peer – n. a person who belongs to the same age group or social group as someone else
vulnerable – adj. easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally
routine – n. a regular way of doing things in a particular order
mood – n. a person's emotional state