I’ve Been in School Mental Health for 10 Years. My Heart Is Breaking Right Now.

I spent much of the spring 2020 seated in a pink armchair in my bedroom trying desperately to support the children and families at the school I was a part-time Social Worker. I was equipped with a lot or very little, depending upon your perspective: a smartphone; a laptop; consistent wi fi; years of graduate and work experience; compassion, more than or less; and a working understanding of children and the area in which I lived.

Many of the families I worked with spoke of their despair at the new and intensified problems they faced, as well as the fear, conflict and cloistered chaos that swept into their lives in March and then remained. Others were difficult to reach; my emails and calls went unanswered. Teachers reported that students rarely appeared on Zoom calls or appeared as black squares, which was worryingly silent.

I still remember my parents crying when I saw their blurred faces. It was a moment of empathy and support. Sometimes children would speak out of their problems, sometimes quite choppyly as the connection faded. These families spoke out about food shortages; constant strife; schoolwork never completed; unpaid work that could be done; younger siblings who needed to be supervised; sick or dying relatives; and children who wept or raged, or cowered, consumed with worry.

Sometimes I could offer solutions to these ills, but often I could not; my own children jangled at the doorknob, and I was forced to say, as I ended the conversation, “I’ll make some calls, and let you know,” or “I’m so sorry; that’s so hard.” It hurt, every time, but there was, ultimately so little I could do. It was an intensification of a sensation I’ve had for years: For every student whose life has been improved by my labors, there are those whose challenges are too deeply entrenched for me to help much at all, given the limited resources attached to my role and the tenuousness of the infrastructure our country has to support families — parents, children — facing addiction, mental illness, medical challenges, undiagnosed learning disabilities, poverty, intergenerational trauma or some combination of all of these factors.

My school was able to return to in-person learning just a few months later, in Sept 2020. This was a relief to me. Some of the problems disappeared almost instantly. Some problems seemed to disappear like slow-moving ripples; others remained. Many other schools remained distant in some form or the other until fall 2021. (According the National Center for Education Statistics) 35 percent of 4th and 8th grade students were fully in person in February 2021.)

In May 2022, I spoke with school counselors, school social workers, and psychologists from across the country. I wanted to find out about their lives and work during the pandemic. They spoke of fundamental shifts in their work, which was something that was difficult to hear.

“Usually I turn my phOne off, but my phone has been really on all the time because I’m worried about this one student,” Marsha Carey, a social worker in a charter high school in a large northeastern city told me, speaking to a dissolution of boundaries that would have been unimaginable to her before the pandemic. “One of my student’s moms died [of COVID-19]…. Sometimes my phone rings at 1, 2 o’clock in the morning, [and I answer because I’m] scared that my student can’t handle it anymore, where she’s suicidal. She doesn’t have a mom anymore, she doesn’t have a dad, her support system is not that great. [I’m]Available 24 hours a day. That’s been very hard. You take it home to your family.”

I have been working in school mental health for almost 10 years and through most of the pandemic. So much of what these workers told me — many of whom asked that I use only their first names, or share only general geographic information about their schools, given the sensitive nature of their work — resonated with my own experiences. They come from independent, charter, and public schools. They all shared a striking similarity when they spoke of the effects of COVID-19 (which I consider both economic fallout as well as disease) and extended remote education.

School counselors and social workers described schools full of children who were, as a group, experiencing developmental delays: “The 9th grade class as a whole is having all these large-scale social issues that are just usually more common in middle school or elementary school,” Kira, a counselor at an independent high school in a mid-Atlantic suburb told Truthout.

I was told by elementary practitioners that their children were having developmental problems typical of preschoolers. By contrast, middle school practitioners said that their students were navigating the social and emotional terrain of elementary schoolers.

Students struggle to get in class after remote learning. Jamie Spiro is a therapist who works in a large Washington State high school. She described the current situation of her adolescent patients. “I have some students who wear a mask but not because of COVID; they have anxiety around showing their faces.… Doing school by Zoom provided an opportunity to have their screens off. When they returned, they were anxious about their faces being exposed. However, some students became used to Zoom classes and could leave whenever they wanted. They’re surprised when they can’t just … leave class.”

Teachers were not equipped to meet these challenges. Zoe, a social worker in elementary schools in central Wisconsin, said that teachers were ill-equipped to support these challenges. Truthout that, “Any time a student experiences anything sort of emotional, the teacher takes the approach of ‘I’m maxed out; can you just Fix it?’”

Many of the people I spoke to were their only counselor or social worker at school. All of them served hundreds of students. We have as a culture unceremoniously thrown the aftershocks, fear, loss, economic stress and uncertainty into the laps of thinly streched professionals.

Like many, I have worked hard in my time as a social worker to manage my own and others’ expectations of my work. I do not “fix” children; I meet children and caregivers where they are, and support them — perhaps through change, perhaps not. I connect them with outside services and supports when they’re available. Sometimes these resources are not available or are logistically, financially, or geographically inaccessible. I can do more on certain days than others, but not always. What happens to your carefully constructed limits and your sense of efficacy when the problems get more complex, more numerous, and more entrenched?

Heather Findley, director of mental health services for Holt Public Schools, a suburban and rural district in Michigan, wondered aloud about the impact of the pandemic on Holt’s students and, as a result, on its mental health staff: “How do you ultimately know that it’s not you Not doing your job; it’s everything else that’s going on around it that’s impacting that, and how do you not then take that personally and be like ‘I’m not servicing the way I should be?’”

Breanne, a school counselor from a small city in Washington State, said the same thing. “It’s been hard to even just take a day off to take care of yourself because you come back and students are like ‘Where were you,’ and ‘I tried to see you’ and ‘I needed this’ and ‘my family is getting evicted.’… You just feel that sense of responsibility for them but also, you’ve got to take care of yourself because everybody knows you can’t give from an empty tank.”

Breanne is stepping down from her role as principal to become assistant principal. Breanne had a keen understanding about the ways that the challenges presented by this moment stretched beyond the walls of her school.

“We feel like we’re on our own in these situations, and even in our district we’ll talk and be like, ‘Maybe it’s just our population,’” she said. “Then we get to statewide events or national conferences online, and hearing these exact same things…. This isn’t isolated, this isn’t just a me thing; it’s not just my population, this is all over the country.”

Then, on the day of my last interview, a teenager with a AR-15 killed 19 schoolchildren, and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde (Texas). I received a message from the high school social worker from Chicago, with whom I had planned to speak that evening. “I’m struggling,” she wrote. She was very understanding and sent me many apologies.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott was elected the day after the shooting in Uvalde. Greg Abbott — who in April slashed $211 million from the department that oversees mental health programs in his state — said: “We as a state — we as a society — need to do a better job with mental health. Anyone who shoots another person has a mental health problem. Period.”

These words require some scrutiny as we try to make sense of what this country’s frontline mental health workers have been tasked with over the past 27 months.

After years of budget cuts at educational institutions, the pandemic was inevitable. an increasingly frayed infrastructure (if it can even be called that) for addressing youth behavioral health. I believe in the power mental health support. Researchers who highlight the value of identifying depressed and potentially violent young menThey are right to believe that the dangers these teenagers pose to others and themselves are preventable. But I am increasingly wary of this notion — popular across party lines — that therapy is the tool that will rescue us from pain and dysfunction. (“Counselors not cops!” has become a popular rallying cry in progressive movements to defund the police, and while I agree that counselors are more useful to students than cops, I also have an intimate awareness of the structural barriers that stymie even the best counselors, and the ways that they are often inaccurately presented as a panacea.)

Talking about mental health in a discussion about patriarchal violence or access to militarized weaponsry is a dangerous splinter of a long-held confusion: The idea that counselors, social workers, and therapists can fix everything. We can’t. We cannot repair the damage done by a violent, starkly unequal society. We cannot fix the harms caused by racism or patriarchy. We can only listen to, support, connect, move, and move those who are open to change, or towards what they desire.

I am reminded again of another cultural delusion. This country has believed for years that the only way to eliminate the effects of inequality is by encouraging resilience and grit in schools. In the absence of a safety net — of universal health care; consistent poverty relief; access to quality, affordable and consistent mental health care; subsidies for families; or even sufficient programs to combat food insecurity — the school reformers of the ’90s and today have tasked educators with meeting needs, and repairing damage, of preposterous proportions.

Those who want to avoid the reality that a deep, systemic shift is required will push the fallout from the pandemic as well as the epidemic of gun violence onto underpaid and overworked school mental health workers. However, the current reality makes it impossible to achieve the change that is needed beyond the walls of their counseling rooms.

“There are a lot of instances of racism — student-to-student, teacher-to-student, at this school,” Sara, a school counselor in a Philadelphia charter high school, told me, her words slow and agonized. “Because everyone is at their [wits] end, to try to address those types of issues that need to be addressed, and as the counselor it is my job to do that … that becomes increasingly difficult.”

She too is leaving her job to pursue private practice.

We must shout the truth to those in power: They have abandoned this country’s children, and we cannot clean up their mess, however much our failure to do so might break our hearts.