The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the growing mental health crisis among children and teens. Our Alliance for Children’s Mental Health assembled a panel of parents, healthcare experts, educators and students to discuss their concerns and possible solutions.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans have pinned their hopes on schools to help children cope. The 2021-22 school year promised a chance to get “back to normal,” but the continued behavioral and emotional impacts of the last two years have changed the way many of us are thinking about “normal.” Indeed, late last year, the US Surgeon General’s Advisory on Youth Mental Health raised the alarm about a children’s mental health crisis that the pandemic has only deepened.
But this crisis may have a silver lining. Parents, educators, mental health professionals and students themselves have come together to rethink school support for mental wellness, with new ideas that could reshape the post-pandemic future.
These challenges and innovations were the topic of the recent Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health panel, “Connecting the Dots: How Teens, Caregivers and Educators are Coping with their Return to School in Uncertain Times,” moderated by NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee.
Surveys the Alliance for Children’s Mental Health conducted last year showed that many teens were anxious about the return to in-person schooling and social interaction, while teachers worried about how the return would impact student’s mental health, particularly given the stress they might feel to catch up academically.
Our panel provided a window on how these fears have been borne out. Dr. Traci Petteway, a parent and PTA leader, spoke of her concerns about students’ preparation for college and beyond. “Is the foundation there?” she wondered. Dr. Janice M. Beal, a mental health clinician in Houston, Texas, described the strained mental health infrastructure that was struggling to keep up with demand even before the pandemic. “It’s very hard just to get appointments,” she said.
Panelist Bob Mullaney, superintendent of Millis Public Schools in Millis, Massachusetts, has seen spikes in “anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and attempts at suicide” since the return to in-person instruction. “Students who prior to March of 2020 showed no indication of mental health issues are now feeling these pressures,” he said. In addition, “the stress and strain has led to an alarming increase in violence—student assaults on each other and on staff.”
These reactions didn’t surprise Francesca Henderson, a high-school junior, who spoke about the fundamental disruption to the lives of students her age and to their sense of identity. “I was 14 when this happened—and now I'm less than a year away from being a legal adult.”
The question is: What solutions can we offer to parents, educators, and youth who have been so destabilized? At the practical level of ensuring service access and delivery, this requires partnerships between government, schools and local providers.
Schools have shown they can be creative in supporting student mental health with funding from the federal, state and local governments. But such funding is not guaranteed in the long term. Creating lasting partnerships with nonprofit organizations and community health providers offers a way for schools to be less reliant on public funding.
During the pandemic, Dr. Beal saw increased cooperation between community clinicians, families and schools, mostly focused on mental health awareness and education and on adolescent suicide prevention. The fact is, she says, "Most parents don't know what depression looks like." There is a need to improve awareness of the signs of mental health struggles and to encourage families to seek care for children in distress. Because of the mental health impacts of the pandemic, Dr. Beal has spent more time than ever bringing mental health education into school communities. “We can't just think inside the box, we have to think outside the box,” she said. “We don’t even need a box.”
Educating parents and teachers is a part of the challenge, but so is educating students to be proactive about their own and their peers’ emotional well-being. Beal reports she has had success with Well-being in Color, a peer-based mental health prevention and recovery program for young people of color developed by the Steve Fund, a member of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health.
Superintendent Mullaney has also reached out to non-profit organizations. “We’ve become a Jed High School,” he says, referring to a community program offered by The Jed Foundation, another member of the Alliance. The Jed High School program helps school districts and high schools evaluate and strengthen their programming and systems related to suicide prevention, mental health and substance misuse prevention.
But there is also work to be done in school communities to build the trust necessary to connect students with care, particularly in communities of color. Moderator Chaterjee remarked on the Alliance research showing that non-white teens expressed more concern than white teens about dealing with social anxiety, lost academic focus, mental health challenges and COVID-19 health concerns. “Lack of access to care is also prominent in communities of color,” she remarked.
Added Dr. Beal, “Disparities in education parallel disparities in mental health.” To begin to address these disparities, she teaches children of color about brain function, the history of mental health, and the language we use to talk about it. That knowledge “opens the door to these conversations.”
On one level, the panel highlighted structural problems and solutions for identifying young people at risk and improving access to care now. The recommendations from the panelists include a commitment to mental health education for families, support for at-risk students via community partnerships, and targeted interventions for students in need through increases in capacity within the school.
But the panelists also emphasized that the conversation must include young people. "Youth are undervalued and not taken as seriously as they should be when it comes to their mental health," says Francesca Henderson. Engaging them is crucial in helping find a solution.
As Superintendent Mullaney put it: “We want kids at the table.”