The Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health gathered educators and experts to discuss ways to support young people as they transition back to school during a time of unprecedented disruption.
While much of the focus on children’s return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic has centered on their physical well-being—with conversations ranging from hybrid learning to ventilation systems—there is one aspect of this transition that deserves just as much attention: safeguarding their mental health. The stresses on children and young adults caused by the pandemic and its consequences, including illness, loss of family members, fear and isolation, as well as the recent social unrest due to racial injustice, have had a profound effect on young people. As they head back to class, either in person or remotely, it is up to educators to help address these complex challenges.
With that in mind, the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health, formed in partnership with leaders in the field in order to address the growing crisis of mental illness among children and adolescents, convened a panel of experts to address how schools can combat these unprecedented threats to children’s mental health. The two-day virtual event, which stressed the importance of building communities of wellness and healing, attracted 1,600 educators, school administrators and mental health professionals in primary, secondary and higher education across the U.S. It included representatives from Alliance founding partners the Child Mind Institute, The Jed Foundation, NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and the Steve Fund, as well as other experts.
“Like every parent I know, I looked at returning to school with such a different lens this year,” says Joan Steinberg, Morgan Stanley’s Global Head of Community Affairs, the President of the Morgan Stanley Foundation and the Chair of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health. “Not only do I want my son to learn and be safe, but more than ever, I was focused on his mental health needs after months of isolation. In the Alliance we asked, ‘How can we best prepare educators and counselors to create and augment mental health safety nets in addition to the many other crucial roles they play in supporting young people?’ The conference was our first step towards an answer,” In the following Q&A, she discusses some key takeaways from the event.
Q: What was your goal in bringing together educators and experts in children’s mental health at the first Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health Conference?
Steinberg: We formed the Alliance back in February in response to the rise in mental health disorders among the young, their persistent lack of access to treatment, and the scarcity of sufficient resources among service providers.
Then COVID-19 hit and caused a significant impact on children’s mental health. As the pandemic continued, our world was further upended by social unrest in response to racial injustice.
With the summer coming to a close, it became clear that this school year was going to be unlike anything children have experienced in terms of academics, socializing, and so on. The Alliance felt it was imperative to engage educators, school administrators and mental health professionals in primary, secondary and higher education across the whole country, in a dialogue about specific ways we can help children and families better cope with the school year ahead.
Q: The double crises of COVID-19 and widespread protests over racial injustice are affecting children of color disproportionately. The Steve Fund collaborated with the Healthy Minds Study to examine educational and mental health experiences of students of color after the COVID-19 pandemic began. What are some of the issues identified by the findings and what can schools do to help?
Steinberg: This research has found that compared with white students, Black and Latinx students are experiencing higher levels of financial challenges, food and housing insecurity, and grief and loss at home, and they are more likely to view school-based mental health services as a source of support. So we have an opportunity here for schools to address their needs. As our keynote speaker, Dr. Jan Collins-Eaglin, mentioned, we need to talk about race and how racism is making the crisis of the pandemic worse for children of color. There needs to be an ongoing and open dialogue initiated by educators at all levels so that students of color know that their well-being is a campus-wide priority.
Q: Colleges are facing their own issues, with plans in flux to reopen in person and many students, including those who are food-insecure or working to support their families, having to attend remotely. Can you talk about how nonprofit partners like the Jed Foundation and the Steve Fund plan to address these issues as part of their core mission to deliver mental healthcare on college campuses?
Steinberg: We are working with our partners in various ways to address these issues on campus, including planning workshops and programs dedicated to physical and mental well-being. These will include opportunities for live and on-demand programming dedicated to self-care, empathy and grief processing among other topics, depending on the extent to which the institution is physically open and what public health practices are recommended or required.
Q: Do you think this current crisis can help educators develop a new model of student mental healthcare? What are some lessons we can bring to “the new normal”—whatever that may be?
Steinberg: Absolutely. Everything that we are learning now could be used to transform the future of children’s mental healthcare. Despite all the changes, uncertainties, and anxiety, the current situation also provides an opportunity to rethink school policies and practices, and work toward challenging these structures to promote equity and wellness, to heal, grow and flourish. Make a change in how we all talk about our mental health and promote self-care. Support each other, as we come back full of new feelings and experiences. Ensure that the well-being of students of color is a campus-wide priority. Promote wellness activities that students can do collectively and individually, and train educators to recognize trauma symptoms, in addition to identifying trustworthy and culturally competent referral resources for students.
And we are excited to lead this effort. No matter what the future brings, the Alliance will continue to support students, families and educators as they build these communities of healing and drive for change.
To learn more about resources offered by our Alliance partners, please follow the links below:
Child Mind Institute: Personalized Care for Mental Health and Learning Disorders
Steve Fund / JED Foundation: The Equity in Mental Health Framework