Mental Health in the Time of COVID-19
While the public health emergency the led to widespread school shutdowns focused on preserving the physical health of students, their families, and others with whom they came into contact, many are emphasizing the mental health crisis that is emerging. As a result of isolation, disconnection from social networks and events, loss of milestones and celebrations, and COVID-19’s effects on family health, financial security, and well-being, students may face challenges that would have been potentially identified and addressed, at least in part, in school. Early in March, an article in The Lancet highlighted these concerns from experiences in China, just as they emerged around the world. They emphasized the importance of close communication with children and equipping parents with the tools to monitor and support their children’s wellness and emotional health.
School Social Workers’ Perspectives
A research brief for policymakers—summarizing a survey of school social workers (n=1,275) in the U.S. conducted in June and July 2020—highlights the importance of supporting students’ mental health and emotional well-being among their myriad needs during the pandemic. Sixteen percent of respondents indicated that nearly all of the students in their school have unmet mental health needs, while 25 percent of schools have about half of their students with unmet mental health needs and 34 percent have over half of their students with this need, according to school social workers. Mental health was the top unaddressed need as reported in the survey, ahead of food and tutoring needs. Their “students’ emotional well-being” was also the most commonly indicated pandemic-related worry among the school social workers, ahead of their family’s health or their own health, job security, or financial condition. Notably, the social workers also reported considerable concern for economic hardship that their students’ families may be facing. When asked about their pandemic-related professional needs, “access to more mental health resources for my clients” topped the list. The survey technical report is also available for more details about the sample.
The Role of School Nurses
A recent article in NASN School Nurse discusses several of the non-educational services and supports that schools typically provide, such as physical activity, psychosocial support, food security, and mental health services. The spring shutdowns cut families off from much of that programming and support, and an uncertain fall term may also include closures, disruptions, and extended periods of virtual learning. This piece discusses the critical role the school nurse plays in these challenging times, regardless of the status of the school building. It both outlines the challenges and presents possible solutions to supporting student health and well-being during COVID-19. Among the resources highlighted in the article, the National Association of School Nurses curates a catalog of resources for parents and school personnel.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) provides guidance for the 2020-21 school year and similarly emphasizes the importance of engaging school health professionals in re-opening plans with a focus on being prepared for wide-ranging mental and socio-emotional health needs among both students and staff when schools reopen. The stress and emotional impact of the pandemic itself coupled with limited access to school-based services requires heightened attention, staffing, and preparation this fall. The AAP suggests (1) training for classroom teachers, (2) a clear referral system to connect students requiring mental health services with school professionals, and (3) mechanisms to connect with and potentially evaluate students when distance learning is in effect or for students who do not return to in-person instruction.
The CDC also provides resources for parents, including a list of signs to watch for in children as they cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, tips for supporting children through this time, and links and numbers for getting help in a crisis situation.