Alison Yin/EdSource
More students need counseling, while those services are harder to deliver since schools closed.

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.”

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  1. Shannon Nelson 1 month ago1 month ago

    It makes me feel hopeful when people acknowledge the need for support. As a primary teacher with more social emotional awareness than many, I constantly coach parents to teach their children of their right and responsibility to self-advocate.

  2. Angststoornissen behandelen 5 months ago5 months ago

    Self-discipline is a great way to control your emotions. Once you gain control of your emotions, you’ll have more control when it comes to your anxiety attacks. Negativity of any kind only fuels the fire of your anxiety attacks. Learn how to detach emotions a bit from your life and things will improve.

    TIP! If you suffer from anxiety, you probably aren’t taking enough time to relax. It’s very important to take some time out each day to do things that help relax you.

  3. linda liu 5 months ago5 months ago

    My children are quite relaxing and enjoy the time that we stay together, they are not anxious at all , it is the wonderful break for our busy family, Dad spends more time with boys because no business trip during quarantine, don’t waste the limited fund on the unnecessary research, parents and students do not need it. 我们不需要这些没有必要的所谓研究,实际上孩子们在家中很放松,不要浪费有限的教育经费做这些没必要的事

  4. Gigi 5 months ago5 months ago

    Actually, I enjoy so much time with my two kids during this "Shelter at home" time. We spend quality time every day, studying, learning, reading, talking with each other. This is what we never had before when my kids were at school and I was busy at work. The most important thing is I am able to demonstrate to my kids how important the family value is. According to a lot of educational … Read More

    Actually, I enjoy so much time with my two kids during this “Shelter at home” time. We spend quality time every day, studying, learning, reading, talking with each other. This is what we never had before when my kids were at school and I was busy at work. The most important thing is I am able to demonstrate to my kids how important the family value is.

    According to a lot of educational and child development experts, children are influenced the most by their parents and learn the most from their parents. I know some parents might worry that kids are not learning as much as before or might be left behind. But, it’s just couples weeks or months in their whole life. I even feel my kids’ brains have grown much more during this time when they have more free time learning at home, compared to the time when they need to go to school everyday.

    Learning is a lifetime journey. What our children needs to know is not just those basic academic knowledge from the school. Those thing can be learned very quickly. However, the most important thing we, as parents, need to do is to pass on the true “family value” and demonstrate the right “attitude” to our children. That’s the most important thing for our children to carry with them for their entire life. For the safety of our children, I am not eager to send my kids back to the campus at all. So, parents, we all are the role models of our kids and they look up to us. So, it is the best time to demonstrate the positive and right attitude to our kids at home!

  5. George Lay 5 months ago5 months ago

    First of all, as the article admitted, the survey was designed by a non-professional liberal group called ACLU Youth Committee and conducted in a non-scientific way, so the discussion on the survey results seems pointless, just like a fruit from a poisonous tree. As an Asian American parent, I highly value the importance of K-12 education because it lays the foundation for our children's future successes. Parents have a big role in this process and the … Read More

    First of all, as the article admitted, the survey was designed by a non-professional liberal group called ACLU Youth Committee and conducted in a non-scientific way, so the discussion on the survey results seems pointless, just like a fruit from a poisonous tree.

    As an Asian American parent, I highly value the importance of K-12 education because it lays the foundation for our children’s future successes. Parents have a big role in this process and the educators should work closely with parents to get the best out of education for the kids. Unfortunately I have seen a trend that activist groups are inserting their agenda in public schools’ curriculum and trying to cut the parents off from being informed, most notable example is California Sex Education Curriculum which was highly influenced by Planned Parenthood and ACLU, two famous progressive groups.

    Undoubtedly there are needs for mental wellness for our kids, but a lot of times, the issue has been purposely exaggerated by some “experts,” especially regarding the mental issues over sexual identity and sexual orientation.

    The Covid-19 Pandemic lock-down prompted a big challenge for the adults and the kids as well. Many parents are experiencing joblessness or pay-cut because of state SIP order; the kids are missing a lot of learning opportunities even though remote learning was offered, but the quality and standard had to be compromised. However, an upside of this challenging situation is that we parents are connecting more with our kids: we’re talking and sharing our thoughts more; playing games and watching movies together more; doing housework together more…. that’s fantastic!

    I really don’t understand why some people complained that close family ties raised mental issues. I don’t want to ignore specific issues for specific people, but exaggerating the issue to justify the need for more funding doesn’t make any sense.

    I hope the state can carefully assess the risk-benefit for reopening the schools. It’s too easy and lazy to just shut down everything until we have vaccines, which is at least a year away. Our economy as well as education cannot resurrected if it was let bleeding too long. Overall, it’s tough time but let’s focus on the positive sides: building a strong and supportive parent-student relationship is a part of them.

  6. Jeanette 5 months ago5 months ago

    Maybe therapy can help as well. I have been in therapy with a psychologist for 2 years for my panic attacks and finally learned how to cope with them.

  7. Darcel A Bowles 6 months ago6 months ago

    How can I help? I am a retired community college academic counselor. I have been told by my working colleagues that the phones are ringing of the hook and no one is answering. Many students in college don’t know how to use a computer effectively. From my experience as an EOPS counselor for over 10 years, all of them don’t read the emails. How can I help?

  8. el 6 months ago6 months ago

    There is a false dichotomy presented here suggesting that these impacts are caused solely by closures and not by the virus; ie, a sense that if only we opened the schools, these stresses would not be happening. The truth is that as long as the virus is circulating, it is going to have substantial impact on the economy and is going to create substantial anxiety about what choices to make to best stay safe, as well … Read More

    There is a false dichotomy presented here suggesting that these impacts are caused solely by closures and not by the virus; ie, a sense that if only we opened the schools, these stresses would not be happening.

    The truth is that as long as the virus is circulating, it is going to have substantial impact on the economy and is going to create substantial anxiety about what choices to make to best stay safe, as well as anxiety about loved ones. Anxiety levels were already very high in March, before closures, and in fact parents were lobbying to close schools so that they could stop stressing about the choice/obligation to send their kids to school or not. Economic demand plummeted before the stay-at-home orders were issued.

    I completely agree that the situation is extremely stressful for both teachers and students, trying to learn new skills and develop new routines on the fly, cancellation of important anticipated events, and the rest. Having a whole family at home 24/7 in a space that previously was only used for evenings is stressful. It’s terrible that we find ourselves here. But we can’t just pretend it’s not happening and that we can go back to what life was like last year.

    As stressful as this is, having family members hospitalized and dying, having teachers hospitalized or dying, or getting an illness that makes you unable to function normally for weeks is also incredibly stressful. People have gotten into the habit of comparing this virus to flu, but I think we should also be remembering the polio epidemic, a disease that caused long term illness and often disability to its survivors.

    Here’s hoping we can end this public health crisis soon, so that we can return to the activities important to us.