Expert Viewpoint

Supporting Student Mental Health Now and in the Future

Often educators, school administrators and counselors are a first line of defense when a student is struggling with their mental health. But when schools closed in March, so too did their window into students’ wellbeing because in-person interactions between students and those who would typically help them ceased.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a significant toll on students’ mental health as they cope with stressors at home and anxiety and uncertainty about the future — including what their school year will look like. For example, during the early months of the pandemic child abuse complaints dropped, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. But this wasn’t because the abuse had stopped. In fact, the opposite was likely true because many children were now in lockdown with their abusers. Instead, experts attributed the drop in reported cases to the fact that children were no longer interacting with the people who would typically notice and report concerns — including their teachers, coaches and school counselors.

Now, as students go back to school — whether it’s in-person, online or a hybrid model, we must make sure students are getting the mental health support they need. Schools must have the right tools and technology to stay on top of wellbeing concerns — from suspected abuse to anxiety and depression — even if students aren’t physically in classrooms.

Mental health a top concern

I believe pandemic-related mental health will be among the most prevalent concerns this school year. Our company, Impero Software, offers free software to help schools effectively track student wellbeing. According to a recent study from September 2020, nearly a quarter of people in the United States are experiencing symptoms of depression — nearly three times the number before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Stress and anxiety stemming from the pandemic can bring about new mental health issues for those who have not needed help before and can exacerbate problems for those whose mental health is already compromised. Children may be especially susceptible because their wellbeing and world views are shaped by routine. When that routine is upended, such as was the case when schools and day cares suddenly closed, sports activities and summer camps were cancelled and students were separated from friends and family — it can be catastrophic for their mental wellbeing. Isolation has been another top concern for students during the pandemic. Many are also stressed and anxious about going back to school because of the change of its fundamental structure to virtual schooling, hybrid learning, or even just having to avoid close contact with their friends while in-person. For some children there are also issues of bereavement over the loss of a friend or relative to COVID-19. Combined, these factors have a significantly negative impact on students’ mental wellbeing.

How schools can help

  1. Embrace technology. As schools resume — whether online, in-person or in a hybrid model, students may need help working through the emotions and the trauma the last several months have caused. Schools should have plans in place to track and address wellbeing concerns whether or not students are in the classroom. This is where technology comes in. For example, we’ve created a free tool called Impero back:drop which allows authorized school staff members to record student wellbeing concerns and also access and share histories for each student in order to obtain a full picture of that student’s health and wellbeing. It gives districts a way to keep track of and communicate potential concerns safely and securely, eliminates the need for paper-based reporting systems, and can be used whether students are learning at school or at home. Using a digital system and having one place to digitally store records and track concerns allows schools and districts to stay on top of issues and take necessary steps to help students cope with trauma. Pairing wellbeing software with remote learning tools can help schools prioritize mental health and support distance learning all at once.

  2. Train counselors and teachers on what to look for during distance learning. Issues that arise during distance learning are a bit different than those that happen during in-person instruction. As an example, if a teacher sees a child being pushed into a locker in a school hallway, they intervene. Educators need to take that same level of care in the online environment to help detect situations of cyber bullying, mental health concerns, or trouble at home. If a student isn’t showing up for synchronous learning, educators need to have ways to communicate with the student to determine what is impeding their education. They also need to be provided tools that enable them to spot and speak with children who aren’t engaging during video classes.

One of our partners, Mental Health America, offers a Back to School Toolkit that provides resources for schools. It includes a list of warning signs to watch for such as changes in mood, changes in attitude, or physical changes such as suddenly wearing long sleeves and cuffs when it’s warm outside. MentalHealth.gov is another good resource for educators and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center provides resources specific to suicide prevention.

This school year will be challenging for many students. Because of the pandemic and the new ways teaching and learning are taking place this year, keeping track of student wellbeing will be a more complex task. But that doesn’t mean schools can let it go by the wayside. In fact, it may be more important than ever to track student wellbeing to ensure this is not a lost year academically. With the right technology and training, educators and counselors can continue to be a student’s first line of defense in ensuring a safe learning environment.

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