American students were experiencing widespread mental distress long before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. A tragic expression of this distress, suicide among young people has been on the rise for about ten years and is today the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. Now the pandemic is making matters worse. In a recent poll, more than 80% of students said COVID-19 had an impact on their lives by increasing isolation, loneliness, stress and sadness. Although it is too early to make a conclusive link between national data on youth suicide and the pandemic, school districts across the country have been report alarming spikes in suicides and self-harm attempts.
These links are by no means surprising given what we know about the impact of social isolation on mental and emotional well-being. While stay-at-home orders, quarantines and social distancing precautions are essential public health tools in curbing the spread of infectious disease, these measures may well have the opposite effect on the prevalence of psychological anxiety and distress. Kindergarten to college students faced a sudden transition to online learning in the spring of 2020, finding themselves suddenly disconnected from their established daily routines, support systems and sources of security. This disruption came at the precipice of a year of prolonged isolation amid a devastating global pandemic and social, political and economic turmoil. Millions of students still have not returned to class and new research identifies young adults as most vulnerable group for anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Indeed, we find ourselves in the midst of a student mental health crisis.
As we continue to face the impacts of the pandemic and work toward recovery and a possible full return of the classroom, here are three things educators, school counselors, administrators and parents can do.
1. Know the warning signs of distress in students.
Given the magnitude of the disruption students have experienced during the pandemic, parents and educators should know that increased stress, anxiety and apathy among students is expected. Students who thrived in an active educational community before the pandemic may resist or find it difficult to fully participate in a virtual environment. As a college professor, I have noticed that students who were confident and enthusiastic participants in the classroom struggle to find their voice during a Zoom course riddled with technological issues and new cultural norms related to it. to communication. As a parent, I went through a myriad of meltdowns trying to get my six year old to log on to another virtual school day. While not necessarily normal, this type of low-intensity distress has become the norm in these strange times.
Parents and educators should expect challenges, but watch carefully for sudden or extreme changes in student behavior, mood, and activities. If a student suddenly begins to refuse to participate in their normal activities or begins to pick on themselves or others, it is important to connect them with resources to help them. As students begin to return to class, educators should watch for new signs of social phobia or discomfort, knowing that students may find it difficult to seamlessly return to the social setting they successfully navigated prior to class. COVID-19.
With so much going on, it can be difficult for adults to spot the signs of distress in a timely manner. Increasingly sophisticated operation technological risk assessment tools, creating smaller groups for students, maintaining points of contact, and championing a culture that allows peers to watch over each other (such as the Source of force model) are all ways to help make sure someone spots and acts on a warning sign in time.
2. Connect students with resources to help them.
Help resources exist for pupils in difficulty. The trick is to connect students to the best form of support available, whether at home, at school or in the community. Communication is the key to this challenge. In my children’s primary school, a “parents as partners” model establishes and encourages lines of communication between parents and teachers. It is a great starting point for educators and parents. Parents need to know who to talk to at their child’s school or university about mental health issues and need to know what school resources are available to help them. Educators and administrators should be proactive in sharing information about mental wellness programs available on their campus and in the community as well as school policies with parents, so adults work together to identify and resolve problems before they get worse.
Parents can provide resources at home, including dedicating a physical space for virtual learning and creating a structure for students to focus on home schooling, while providing plenty of breaks to get away from it all. screens and get out. Students in distress could benefit from at least some in-person connection with their peers – another important resource – if (and only if) parents can find safe ways for such interactions to occur. Considering the high levels of stress that students, parents, and teachers have been exposed to for a long time, we should all actively seek out enjoyable activities and practice self-compassion to increase our ability to cope.
Educators and administrators can help by providing resources dedicated to mental well-being, resilience, addressing the challenges of online learning, and helping with the transition to in-person learning. This can take the form of a staff or consulting services, or a comprehensive online program such as the Student Resilience Project Toolkit, a trauma-informed student mental health and wellness toolkit recently launched at my university to help students develop coping skills and connect them to university resources. Parents, educators and administrators should always have community resources available ready to share with students, such as the National lifeline for suicide prevention or the Trevor project to support LGBTQ youth.
3. Build a social bond.
Just as we can sense that social isolation is likely to exacerbate psychological distress and even the risk of suicide, we can expect social bonding to be a powerful protective factor for young people. In fact, research tells us that students at risk of suicide are more likely to turn to a peer an adult or authority figure for help, and social bonding can reduce the risk of suicide by promoting a sense of belonging. Indeed, tapping into existing peer networks seems to be a promising way to support students and intervene with those who are experiencing difficulties. The challenge, however, is how do schools and universities socialize in the virtual and inherently disconnected environment of the pandemic?
I hope to address this question directly in future research, but for now I can share some of the best practices already within reach of educators. For example, when it comes to social connection in an educational setting, class size matters. Especially in a virtual setting, reducing class sizes or providing plenty of opportunities for dedicated small-group interaction so that the same children interact over time can help students feel more connected to their peers. Individual connection points are also essential. While it is not possible to provide students with extended one-on-one time with a teacher, pairing students with an older peer or student mentor can encourage students to support and support each other. connect on what they are learning. Educators should also be careful to prioritize active connection opportunities (direct interactions, back and forth) over passive connection (scrolling through a chat or social media feed), as passive connection can have the opposite effect on the goal of increasing social connection. . Educators should also make it clear to students that they are a source of support for mental health issues.
The bottom line in these difficult times is that focused and meaningful interactions are very important. Encourage students to step away from screens when possible, and be sure to cultivate connections where possible. Schools and parents can find that the benefits for mental well-being extend far beyond the end of the pandemic.
Thanks to Lily Swanbrow Becker for writing her support on this post.