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Perspective | Mental health for K-12 students during the pandemic

The challenge

Schools are an essential source of nonacademic support for students as they provide essential services including health and mental health resources. These services are necessary factors for students’ emotional, social, and physical well-being as mental health plays a vital role in the behaviors and emotions of students. Further, being healthy emotionally can promote productivity, effectiveness, and achievement in school. 

However, the coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on a growing mental health crisis in the United States, and federal data shows a nationwide surge of mental health cases amongst children and adolescents due to the unique combination of the public health crisis, social isolation, and economic recession.

The American Academy of Pediatrics labels schools and school-supported programs as fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being, as they provide students with social and emotional skill development, safely reliable nutrition, physical/occupational/speech therapy, and mental health services, among various other benefits. Schools often serve as one of the most important institutions that address children’s mental health needs, particularly in rural areas of the country, where schools are often one of the only places where children’s mental health services are provided.

Therefore, school closures have become especially disruptive for children from lower-income families and rural areas who are disproportionately likely to receive mental health care exclusively from their school. As students continue to navigate learning during a public health crisis, educators and policymakers should work to provide mental health services and supports.

Long-term school closures have substantially disrupted the lives of nearly all of the 55 million K-12 students in the US — and taken a striking toll on children’s mental health. A recent survey of K-12 students, conducted after stay-at-home orders went into effect, found that 38 percent of students are more concerned with their well-being, 51% report being more stressed, and 39% feel lonelier. These findings showcase the consequences that social isolation, lack of in-person relationship building, and other stressors have had on the mental health of students. Mandy Garrison, a licensed clinical social worker and specialist in the North Thurston Public Schools in Washington state, found that a lack of on-site schooling has made it difficult for strict mental health and social services to reach children. Garrison believes the coronavirus pandemic has affected many students, as she states, “typically well-functioning” students began “struggling with social isolation, anxiety, fear of the future, and depression.”

Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that the proportion of emergency medical visits related to mental health crises has had a sharp increase amongst children since the pandemic started. The CDC reports that from March 2020 to October 2020, the share of mental health-related hospital emergency department visits rose 24 percent for children ages five to 11 and 31 percent for students ages 12 to 17. This data is concerning for educators and parents as students continue navigating remote, hybrid, or in-person learning after months of sudden quarantine and social isolation.

School closures have been especially difficult for the roughly 6% of U.S. children, ages six through 17, who are living with serious emotional or behavioral difficulties such as depression, severe anxiety, autism, and trauma-related conditions. Many students have relied on traditional in-person schooling for access to vital therapies. JAMA Pediatrics reports that schools provide mental health services to 57% of adolescents who need care. As many mental health disorders begin in one’s childhood, researchers point to the essential need for any mental health issues to be identified and treated early.

Policy considerations

Understand various student needs | The World Health Organization has established social determinants of mental health, from educators, income, and environment. As mental health is shaped to a great extent by the social, economic, and physical environment in which students live, it is important to understand the role that racial disparities play in the rates of diagnosis, treatment access, and prognosis for students of color. Educators and policymakers should work to understand the ways the pandemic has affected various populations and forgo a blanket solution.

Develop mental health awareness and training for students | It is important that educators and other school personnel can detect and respond to mental health issues within the student body. School districts should aim to invest and develop new programs that will train and equip staff with the necessary resources to support children’s mental health.

Provide students with instruction on mental health | Mental health services can often carry a stigma that may prevent students from seeking out support. A key to reducing the attached stigma is education and awareness. Stakeholders should consider curriculum-based learning programs that explicitly teach about mental health issues and develop students’ mental health literacy.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published by The Hunt Institute. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

The Hunt Institute Staff

The Hunt Institute is a strategic catalyst for transforming public education and securing our country’s future. Using our depth and breadth of knowledge, we bring together the right people and resources to facilitate critical dialogue and mobilize action on the issues that matter in education.