Student mental health: A year of increased need, creative solutions and recognizing warning signs

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As the COVID-19 pandemic caused an increased need for mental health services for young people, providers have had to get creative about how they reach them.

Lorin Terrell, the program manager for the Aurora Mental Health Center’s school-based services team, said the team shifted many of its services online to accommodate remote learning.

APS Mental health Provider, Jennifer Rice stand for a portrait outside of Crossroads Transition Center.
Portrait by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

The team provides school-based counseling to students and their families in several districts, including Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District.

The team saw a drop-off in demand for services during the beginning of the pandemic but as time went on they began to see an increase in demand, Terrell said. She expects that demand to increase as the pandemic wanes and people return to a new sense of normalcy, but said it’s too soon to predict what the long term impacts of the pandemic will be.

“I think it’s impossible to predict at this point, but I also believe that our community is extremely resilient and that whatever the impact may be, we will rise to the challenge in meeting it,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, she’s said young people have struggled with feelings of isolation and difficulty managing transitions. She’s seen an increase in depression and anxiety, which she believes has been brought on by the stressors of the pandemic.

“Many families have experienced grief and loss, economic instability and frequent disruptions to our normal schedules,” she said — all things that can be challenging for kids.

School counselors are seeing similar issues. The isolation and lack of socialization caused by COVID is creating a “significant” demand for services, said Vidya Duff, an APS school social worker who works at Aurora West.

“School is one thing that is constant and predictable for students, and this year that has changed,” she said.

The district has always had students who need mental health care, but the pandemic has changed how students manifest their problems.

“In the past kids would go to school and maybe misbehave, here they can come and they can just tune out and not participate in the class,” she said. 

“This pandemic has both our students and staff in a situation where the distress and stress of the pandemic is lasting longer than what our bodies were really meant to handle,” said Jennifer Rice, an APS school social worker who works with special needs students ages 17-21.

Rice and Duff said that they have had to find new ways to reach out to students, and that the many months of online learning required them to think outside the box. Social workers have done virtual home visits and have met with students outside their homes wearing masks. They’ve gotten more flexible with when they meet students and parents, recognizing that many students now have extra responsibilities working or taking care of siblings.

They’re also using technology more, sitting in on students’ virtual classes and connecting with them through a messaging app. Rice said she’s even used social media like Snapchat and TikTok to help her students learn vocational skills, such as how to go through a job interview.

“We’re making sure that we’re meeting students’ needs who maybe never needed a social worker before,” Rice said.

Building relationships with students takes more effort now, Duff said, but it pays off.

“Once you establish it and you show them that you care about them, it really helps them to access help again,” she said.

Terrell has three pieces of advice for parents to help support their children during the pandemic: 

  • Maintain routines. Kids’ usual routines of school, extracurricular activities and time with friends have been upended by the pandemic — and their parents’ routines have likely changed too. Amidst all the changes, try to stick to a schedule. “Being able to create a consistent and stable routine is really important,” Terrell said.
  • Give kids the information they need without inundating them. The pandemic affects young people as much as anyone else, but a constant stream of information about it can do more harm than good. “Sometimes I’ll hear kids say ‘oh my parents just watch the news all day every day,’ and that can cause a lot of anxiety for kids,” Terrell said. Instead, Terrell said parents should give kids the information they need without overwhelming them.
  • Be open to seeking support if your child needs it. If your kid seems like they are struggling more than usual, Terrell said it’s important not to be afraid to reach out for professional help. An abnormal lack of interest in school can be a warning sign. “Anytime that we see a person’s ability to function in their role impacted, that is the time it’s important to seek help,” she said. “For kids, what this often looks like is a loss of interest in things that they enjoy or difficulty functioning in school.”

The Aurora Mental Health Center can be reached at (303)-617-2300. Colorado Crisis Services’ 24/7 hotline can be reached by calling 1-844-493-TALK or texting “TALK” to 38255.

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