School closures were intended to keep students safe during the pandemic, but for many, it’s ushered in a different set of dangers: anxiety, depression and other serious mental health conditions.
School counselors, psychologists and social workers have been trying to help students virtually since campuses closed, listening to their struggles and offering advice on how to navigate the complex difficulties they’re facing. But what students need most right now — in-person support — is impossible to deliver, they said.
“I’ve been at this a long time, and I’m scratching my head at how daunting this is,” said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. “In the Great Recession we were dealing with job loss, but now we’re facing job loss as well as widespread trauma.”
Increasing numbers of students say they feel overwhelmed, and not just about the health of their family and friends due to the coronavirus. Their parents might be newly unemployed, they might be falling behind academically, they can’t see their friends, or they might be trapped at home in an abusive family situation.
Faced with soaring needs and limited options, counselors have been finding creative ways to reach students. Whitson’s group has sought advice from longtime counselors at online schools who have expertise providing mental health support via phone or internet; talked to counselors in areas that have experienced wildfires for ideas about treating student trauma when families might not have access to the internet. They also have consulted mental health workers in China about how they served students during the coronavirus quarantine.
The result is this website, published in conjunction with the Wisconsin School Counselor Association, which includes guidelines for how counselors should handle subjects like grief, anxiety and suicide prevention while campuses are closed.
But despite the efforts of school counseling staffs, many students in California still are not receiving the mental health services they need, according to a recent survey by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
More than half the students who responded to the survey said they’re in need of mental health support since the school closures began in mid-March. That includes 22% who said they were receiving some kind of support before the closures but now have limited or no access to those services and an additional 32% who said their mental health needs have arisen since schools closed.
“We were calling this a mental health crisis before the pandemic. Now it’s a state of emergency,” said Amir Whitaker, policy counsel of the ACLU of Southern California. “Our youth are really struggling. … When schools reopen, we’re going to have to re-tool them significantly to address this.”
The survey, created by an ACLU youth committee, was distributed through social media the last week of April. It asked questions such as, “What do you feel stressed about?” and “What has been most helpful during this time?” Students who reported feeling depressed or anxious were referred to the California Department of Education’s website for students in crisis, which includes links to 24-hour crisis hotlines and other services.
[See box below for a sample of student responses]
Although not conducted scientifically, the survey does give some indication of the depth of students’ distress. More than 650 students, from 49 districts, responded to the survey. They represented a wide swath of the state, from Los Angeles to Oakland to Sacramento to Lemoore in the Central Valley. The youth committee sent the responses to Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, as part of a plea for expanded mental health services in schools.
Lack of privacy has been one of the biggest barriers to students receiving help, Whitson said. Students who live in tight quarters with their families can’t confide in a counselor without someone overhearing. As a work-around, some counselors tell students to wear headphones and type their responses into a video “chat” feature, or limit conversations to general topics, such as stress reduction.
Fearing that some students are slipping by unnoticed, some counselors are asking teachers to report when they notice a student who seems despondent or stressed. In at least one district, the school-issued tablets send automatic alerts to staff whenever a student searches for “suicide” online.
The Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ rights, has also issued guidance for school counselors in supporting LGBTQ students during the school closures. Those students who have not come out to their families face particular stress while quarantining at home, the group said.
But even as the need for mental health services grows, some school staff are worrying about their job security. Districts are expecting significant drops in income as the state grapples with decreases in tax revenue and rising costs related to the coronavirus. Maureen Schroeder, a psychologist in Elk Grove Unified who’s also the president of the California Association of School Psychologists, said she’s concerned that when districts have to make cuts, they’ll turn to mental health staff first. In 2010-11, during the last recession, California K-12 schools had 34% fewer counselors, psychologists and social workers than they did in 2018-19, the most recent data available.
“Absolutely, we are seeing an increase in students’ anxiety right now. Mental health is not something we can afford to cut,” Schroeder said. “Young people’s mental health affects the whole community. Without good mental health, you can’t function, you can’t contribute to society. It affects all of us. This is when we need to be investing more in mental health services, not less.”
Student mental health needs vary around the state. In rural areas, it’s not COVID-19 or cramped living quarters that’s driving student stress. It’s economics. Facing high unemployment and a lack of financial stability, some students are scrapping their college plans to work or help their families, said Becky Love, counseling coordinator at the Shasta County Office of Education.
In counties like hers, where counselors have been trying for years to boost college-going rates, the economic downturn has been devastating, she said. Last year about 20% of Shasta County high school students enrolled in four-year colleges, and counseling staffs were hoping the number would increase to 25-30% this year after schools pushed for more students to enroll in classes required for college eligibility and take the SAT, she said.
Now, that number is likely to plummet, she said.
“It’s tough, because we’ve been working so hard on this, telling students ‘Yes you can, yes you can.’ But if your parents aren’t working, it’s an obvious dilemma,” Love said. “I can’t judge a family’s decision. If you don’t have an income, and you don’t know when you’ll be working again, it’s hard to sign onto a college loan.”
She and her colleagues have been meeting weekly to help high school students navigate the uncertainty of life after high school. Some have posted videos online, answering common questions like: If college campuses are closed, what does this mean for financial aid? What if my parents lost their jobs after I submitted my financial aid application? Should I be looking for a Plan B?
“There’s a lot of anxiety about the future,” Love said.
The ACLU survey asked students to grade their mental wellness before and after schools closed, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 indicating top mental health. Before the pandemic, 65% of students gave themselves a 7 or higher. After the pandemic, that percentage had dropped to less than 40%.
Worse, the number of students who rated their mental health a 3 or lower more than tripled after the pandemic began, from 7.2% to 23%.
“When we first sent out the survey, I was nervous because I thought we might be opening Pandora’s box. But the responses shocked even me,” Whitaker said. “The kids who said their mental health was a 1, my heart went out to them. But I’m so proud of them, because they reached out. That takes a lot of courage, and in some ways it’s a sign of hope.”