How WA schools can support students struggling with mental health

Supporting kids during the pandemic rivals the challenges of vaccine distribution. We must get this right.

As schools continue with distance learning, mental health concerns on the effects of isolation on students are on the rise. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, most of Washington’s 1.1 million public school students have been learning remotely. Though intended to save lives by preventing the virus’s spread, the extended and ongoing use of remote learning, especially for kids who are not connecting, has spurred concerns about student mental health in Washington state and across the nation.

As suicide prevention experts in regular communication with parents, students, teachers and school counselors in 48 high schools across the state, it is our goal to provide support for “halftime strategies” in district and school policies for 2021.

In a remote learning environment, many students feel isolated, disconnected and increasingly hopeless about their futures. Students in households with high levels of trauma exposure before the pandemic now have no reprieve from it. According to the Washington state Department of Health, youth suicides (so far) do not appear to have increased in our state compared with last year. However, other data sources — specifically, emergency department data for suicide attempts and self-reported surveys of anxiety and depression symptoms — suggest concerns about student mental health are well-founded. New CDC data reveal that almost one in five teens across the nation have seriously considered attempting suicide.

A couple of weeks ago, the superintendent of public instruction spoke pointedly about his concerns for the large numbers of students who are disengaged academically and socially. 

To use a sports metaphor, as we approach the end of the first half of the school year, we need to refine our game strategies or we may lose some of our kids.

There are many ways to begin thinking about this. Here is one example. At an independent school in Shoreline, a sixth grader with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia was lost in her first few weeks of remote learning. She zoned out and fell behind in her classes, triggering a downward spiral that affected her mental health. In response to this student’s struggle, the school invited her back into the building using strict safety standards: masks on all day, daily online screening about possible exposure to COVID-19 and a temperature check at the door. Now, she does remote learning at school, with a teacher’s aide (not a teacher) in her proximity to supervise, 10 feet of space between student workstations and outside recess with socially distanced peers.

A week after the student returned to school, her parents observed a night-and-day difference in her mental health. Teachers also noticed an immediate change: She had completed all of her assignments, and her performance in school improved.

This independent school responded to the needs of all students the best it could. School officials recognized that the kids who were struggling with remote learning the most and those whose caregivers were essential workers needed more structure and supervision. Capacity in the building was substantially lower than regular attendance levels, which was key to managing the school’s COVID-19 safety protocols. Equity issues were addressed because all students continued to get the same access to teachers and to curriculum online.

The same solution may not work in every district or school, or for every student. There are other ideas about how to shift the current paradigm on remote learning.

To invite students back into school buildings based on need and equity, schools must begin with an assessment of students who are not attending, are disengaged based on teacher reports or who lack access to reliable internet or technology. In addition, universal, formal screening of academic and mental health well-being is also advisable since students internalizing suicidal thoughts will not be detected by these less formal screening approaches. However, most school districts across the state currently lack the numbers of school-based mental health counselors they would need to meet the demands for support uncovered by formal screening measures.

In addition to inviting struggling students back into the building using equitable learning practices, we have additional recommendations for halftime school year strategies.

First, it is important to regularly educate and engage students, parents or guardians and teachers about school and community-based mental health supports. Provide resources about how to identify and support a student who is struggling. This information should be shared regularly in newsletters, classrooms, teacher trainings and at community-focused virtual events. The University of Washington’s Forefront Suicide Prevention has great resources to help schools accomplish this.

Second, districts and schools need to provide resources to support teachers and staff in building connection and coping strategies with students. One way would be to provide developmentally appropriate opportunities for youth to process what is happening in their lives, the good and the bad, in their communities and the world around them. It is impossible for youth to grow from the challenges of this moment in their lives, to build resilience, without opportunities for self-reflection and expression.

One example for how to do this: the Student Voices program launched in 25 Washington high schools this fall. This unique program provides the opportunity for high school students to process what is happening around them via video journaling. Using a web-based app, students are prompted to create short videos about themselves, their relationships and their views of the world during the pandemic, creating a time capsule of this unique and challenging time in their lives. Other students, not involved in Student Voices, report that regular check-ins about their mental health offered by their teachers using a simple Google form are a very helpful support of their well-being.

Lastly, educators across the state are working very hard. It is especially important in the face of continuing uncertainty and fear about the future to promote self-care among teachers and staff. Bring out teachers’ ingenuity. Emphasize team play. Recognize losses and great plays together. The Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center offers teachers and schools numerous free resources for wellness and self-care.

Districts and schools must pull together halftime strategies that will reach all youth in the challenging months that lie ahead. Having the support of federal and state governments in terms of flexible dollars for COVID-19 response and school-based mental health supports is essential. Implementing the kinds of halftime strategies we are talking about will take new resources and people power, but most importantly it will take courage.

In our view, supporting students who are being lost in this pandemic and those struggling with mental health disorders is one of the most important problems to solve creatively during this pandemic. It rivals dilemmas of vaccine distribution and government policies regarding social distancing. If we do not challenge the status quo on behalf of our kids now, the consequences for our students will be ones we grapple with for years to come.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Jennifer Stuber

Jennifer Stuber

Jennifer Stuber, Ph.D., is the director of the University of Washington Forefront Suicide Prevention Center.

Taylor Ryan

Taylor Ryan

Taylor is the program evaluator for the Forefront in Schools program, a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention in schools.