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By: Dr. Tami Silverman   

The end of the school year is in sight, and Covid-19 control measures give us hope that the pandemic is waning. However, we are just starting to understand the effects this past year filled with stress, change, and uncertainty has had on the mental health of students and teachers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), ADHD, behavior problems, anxiety, and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children. Some of these conditions, such as anxiety and depression, commonly occur together. The American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that the stress, fear, grief, isolation, and uncertainty related to COVID-19 is likely to increase the number of American children that have at least one mental health disorder.    

The key to helping the large number of students with mental health disorders is to understand the scope of the issue, combat the outstanding myths, connect children with treatment, supports, and services, and work to build strong support networks for all our young people.  To effectively respond, we need to recognize the signs of student mental health issues.

It can be difficult to distinguish between the behaviors and emotions that are related to typical child development and those that require extra attention and concern. Occasional emotional distress, anxiety, stress, and depression are normal experiences for all children and youth.

Younger students may exhibit symptoms such as intense worry or fear, frequent outbursts, complaints about stomach aches or headaches with no known medical cause, and a lack of interest in playing with other children. Other common symptoms include trouble falling or staying asleep, separation anxiety, crying more easily, and themes like illness or death during play. And kids in this age group may not talk about or have descriptive words to talk about their feelings.

Symptoms in adolescents include a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, sleeping too little or too much, and engaging in risky, destructive or self-harming behaviors. One of the signs of distress with this age group is spending increasing amounts of time alone or avoiding social interactions, something that became commonplace with quarantine and remote school. Even given reduced activities and social distance parameters, signs of distress may include previously outgoing teens that suddenly show little interest in texting, playing video games, or checking social media.

Older teens and young adults have also experienced pandemic-related stressors, including the closure of universities, loss of jobs, and inability to interact with peer groups, all factors that can contribute to poor mental health. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, during the pandemic, a larger than average share of young adults (ages 18-24) report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder (56%). Both adolescents and young adults often try to hide their struggles because of fear, shame, or a sense of responsibility to avoid burdening others.

Dealing with toggling  between in-person and remote learning, student absences, longer hours, efforts to engage students remotely, and technology access issues made teachers’ jobs exponentially more stressful this year. Education Weekly reports that teachers’ levels of stress and anxiety have soared, while their morale has plummeted. Districts have been challenged to increase support for educators while simultaneously striving to address the social and emotional learning needs of students traumatized by the events of the past year.

We cannot expect that all students and teachers need the same services or supports. At particular risk are our students and educators with preexisting mental illness, and those who are Black and Latinx, who were more likely to have had COVID-19 or to have lost friends or family members. We need to make sure that these historically marginalized students and educators receive a level of services are matched to their individual needs.

Efforts to understand and address social and emotional learning and behavioral and mental health needs of students started long before the pandemic hit. Yet the soaring needs of both students and teachers has put a spotlight on the importance of enhancing and expanding such supports. The American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists created a resource addressing the interdependent needs of both groups. The U.S. Department of Education also developed a guidebook to help school districts support educator and staff stability and well-being while also supporting the SEL and mental health needs of their students.

This month we are celebrating the incredible resilience, adaptability, and persistence of our students and educators. By providing mental health supports and services that address the scope of post-pandemic needs, we can back our words of appreciation with needed action.

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(Dr. Tami Silverman is the President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at iyi@iyi.org  or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI. IYI’s mission is to improve the lives of all Indiana children by strengthening and connecting the people, organizations, and communities that are focused on kids and youth.)