Schools Should Prioritize Mental Health Resources — for Both Students and Staff

Alicia Biros, a 42-year-old math teacher at Rhode Island’s North Kingstown High School, died by suicide in May after struggling with depression. Her death rocked the small community of North Kingstown with a population just below 28,000 at the last census. Months later, students and educators are still trying to comprehend and accept the loss.

“Alicia lived alone and when COVID hit, it brought isolation into her life and had a negative impact on her mental health,” her friend and colleague Lisa Garcia told Truthout. Biros is the Rhode Island Teacher Of The Year 2022, Garcia says that she is a dedicated teacher and an instructor who makes lasting connections with many students. “When schools reopened in 2021, it was such a volatile time,” Garcia said. “We were told by administrators to keep things ‘normal’ for the kids so it would seem like everything was okay. This was wrong. It was also not possible.”

Garcia claims Biros was visibly distressed when students and teachers returned to school. She worried about spreading disease and was visibly distraught. “COVID put us all in a dark place,” she said. “You could tell that being back was overwhelming for Alicia. We were being asked to do so many things, and although our intention was to help students become productive, loving adults, the administration ignored faculty voices. We were — and are — hurting and feel undervalued and unheard. It takes a toll.”

Indeed, COVID, alongside pressure to ramp up test preparation and raise standardized test scores — and the necessity of responding to right-wing pushback against anti-racist and pro-LGBTQIA+ curricula — has led to teacher shortages across the country. Counselors and school nurses are also in short supply, with less than half of the nation’s 98,469 public schools employing a full-time nurse. 25 percent of schools have full-time nurses. no nurse whatsoever30% have someone who works part-time. Worse, the National Center for Education Statistics notes that there are currently 114,480 school counselors for the country’s 48 million students, or roughly 1 for every 360 kids. Cops, on other hand, are everywhere.

The bottom line is that there are both 6 and 10 million K-12 students attend schools where police are visibleCounselors, psychologists, social workers, and other professionals are not.

This has had an outsize impact on the mental health of the country’s public school students. According to the 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences SurveyThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey in April 2022 that showed that millions of children are suffering. In fact, 37.1 percent said that they had suffered from “poor mental health” during the COVID-19 shutdown. Nearly 20% said they had considered suicide. Nine percent of respondents had attempted suicide, and 36.7 percent reported feeling hopeless or sad.

This crisis is attributed to school closings, isolation, economic hardships, fear of death or sickness, insufficient access to health care, and the loss to loved ones due to the virus.

Maya Rabasa, who is a member the Eugene, Oregon School District 4J board, said TruthoutSix South Eugene High School students took their own lives between January-April of this year. “Our school funding is dismal,” she said. “We do not have social workers in any of our schools and Eugene is a mental health desert. There is a service you can call if you need counseling, but it can take months to get an appointment.”

Rabasa believes that the suicides have sparked widespread conversations about mental illness, both inside and outside schools. They’ve also kickstarted discussions about working conditions for educators. “In the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve seen a major decline in the joy teachers express about their work,” she said. “We have expected teachers to care for students, asking them to put oxygen masks on the kids in their classrooms without acknowledging that they do not have masks for themselves. This has to change.”

Teachers say they need to feel heard and that they should be given additional resources such as paid medical and family time when they feel sick. They also feel that educators should be respected as professionals who understand what their students and they need to function at their best, whether that’s the ability to choose their own course materials or pushing back a deadline or mandated assignment. They also say that they need to be better trained to deal with their students’ mental health needs — and their own.

Housing and Mental Health

Rabasa and others emphasize that, while mental health issues can cross all classes, genders, and racial lines, students who are not housed are more likely to attempt suicide than their peers in stable housing.

A report written by SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps undomiciled students stay in school, details the impact: “Homelessness at any age is a traumatic experience, causing emotional, physical, and mental injuries in children and youth,” the report reads. “It is caused by traumatic events and often leads to traumatic events, creating layers of compounding trauma that have serious consequences.”

The report states that self-harm occurs among unhoused youth who have been forced to move because of family dysfunction, or after disclosing their sexual identity to unaccepting family members.

Sonia Pitzi, coordinator for education for children who are experiencing homelessness in eight Pennsylvania county counties, acts as a liaison with homeless families and works alongside 26 unaccompanied minors who go to school in the region. She shared her story in the summer of 2022. Truthout,Sixteen of these students needed to be admitted for serious mental health issues. “There are so many issues,” she said. “Students who are on their own — sometimes living in cars, storage facilities, in campgrounds, or couch surfing — are trying to figure out what happened and how they ended up in the situation they’re in. They’re in a place they never imagined for themselves. Some were rejected by their families, or kicked out by a parent’s partner. Others were living doubled up before COVID but had to leave during the lockdown when too many people in too small a space led to problems.”

Then there’s the issue of access to services. “Even if the kid wants to speak to a counselor, demand has outstripped availability and they often have to wait months to get an appointment,” Pitzi said. What’s more, she notes that having someone to talk to isn’t the same as having a safe, affordable place to live.

“The system is broken in many ways,” Pitzi continues. “It’s actually heartbreaking. It used to be that the children would need food, clothing, a place to wash or shower and I knew where to send them. Today they need counseling or affordable housing and all I can do is listen.”

The Impact of COVID

Jordyn Roark, director of youth leadership and scholarship at SchoolHouse Connection, blames students’ struggles with mental health on the pandemic. “There is a lot of anxiety and depression and the mental health world was, and is, overwhelmed,” she said. “I’ll call multiple clinics to try and get someone an appointment and either hear that they’re not accepting new clients or that the person will have to wait a few months for their first appointment. Some end up in the emergency room as a result.”

“Young people have been in survival mode since March 2020 and we have just begun seeing the way that the pandemic has impacted their mental health,” she adds.

She calls the need for mental health services “unprecedented.”

Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, says that as a rule of thumb, it’s important “to assume that everyone is going through something.”

She explained that this commonality does not have to be negative. Truthout — in fact, it has lessened the stigma surrounding mental illness, and broken through the veil of secrecy that, until recently, surrounded conversations around mental health.

Despite these positive steps, it can be difficult to find a therapist.

“Before COVID, there was already a shortage of school-based therapists and psychologists treating children and adolescents,” Twin Cities family therapist Carol Hornbeck told Truthout. “But when everything closed, some schools and community agencies stopped offering services and others pushed kids onto a waiting list. There is an enormous backlog and it is not uncommon to wait six months to see a counselor. We’re seeing a lot more suicidality among LGBTQIA+ kids and the toll of isolation is continuing to unfold,” she said.

Hornbeck said that teachers shoulder a lot of the responsibility for this unfolding. “They already have so much on their plates but they need training to know when they should refer a child to treatment or when they should consult with an expert.”

“Peer support programs should also be part of every elementary, middle and high school,” she said. “That could help change the culture. It isn’t enough to have anti-bullying policies. An emotional wellness program is foundational.”

Kelsey Loy is the education coordinator at Family Promise of Clark County in Washington. She works with unhoused families like Pitzi. Family Promise provided an indoor space for students to work during school closures. They provided them with meals, charging stations, and tutors to help with their assignments.

“Many of the parents were too overwrought to learn the technology that their kids were using,” Loy explained. “Bringing the kids together helped them learn to navigate the platforms and gain new skills. They met other unhoused children. Most of them believed they were the only kid without a permanent home, so meeting others helped build community and broke through their embarrassment about being poor.”

Even though in-person learning has resumed, the program continues to be offered after-school hours and provides vital emotional support. Nonetheless, Loy says, programs like hers don’t address the central problem facing low-income families in southern Washington State: a horrific shortage of affordable housing. “Availability is at 4 percent,” Loy said, “meaning that for every 100 households, there are four available and affordable apartments in Clark County.”

Noel Candelaria is the secretary-treasurer for the National Education Association. He says these realities have pushed the union beyond wages and benefits to expand collective bargaining to include the resources needed to fully support public schools students. Candelaria stated that the community school model connects academics with programs that are focused on health, wellness, and political engagement. This ensures that schools are better integrated into their communities and municipalities.

Lisa Garcia, a Rhode Island teacher is using her Teacher Of The Year platform to push school administrators to make teachers and staff more visible and encourage self-care for educators. “Mental wellness is often presented as a personal choice,” she said. “When Alicia passed, the school system was not set up to handle it. We must teach students and remind adults that interdependence is a positive thing. In the end, learning algebra, history or biology will not be useful to students unless they’re healthy. Mental health must be a priority. We can’t thrive without it.”

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