While there is much to celebrate about the return of students and teachers to classrooms, the transition back is highlighting the extraordinary impact the pandemic has had — and continues to have — on students’ mental health.
Only a few months into what was meant to be the “back to normal” school year, many educators I’ve spoken with are saying this year is more challenging than the last two. Their students are anxious about making friends. Some need help grieving the loss of loved ones who passed. And some are having difficulties with basic behavioral skills, like sitting and staying at their desks.
These social and emotional pressures are on top of 18 months of pandemic-strained learning or outright disruptions. If left unmet, the mental health needs caused by these pressures will mark this generation in yet another way and keep them from living up to their potential.
The realities of this transition back are among the many reasons why, when leading medical groups declare there is a youth mental health crisis, as they did last week, we must heed that call and take action now.
The good news is schools have access to hundreds of millions of dollars in new federal funding geared toward increasing mental health services in schools. Schools have already put some of these funds into action by hiring new mental health staff and purchasing out-of-the-box social and emotional programs.
The bad news is most of this funding will dry out at the start of the next school year when the federal fiscal year ends, and if not then, the following year. Schools will then face the difficult decision of choosing what mental health programs to keep and what to leave behind. How schools spend this mental health funding can make the difference between whether students are more likely to turn to substance misuse and drop out of school, or graduate and go on to succeed in college.
There is, however, a path forward to support students in this moment and beyond. Schools and educators must invest in long-term efforts that prioritize making mental health and social and emotional learning part of the fabric of public education. To do so, school districts should invest funds to develop data-driven, sustainable and cohesive systems of social-emotional and mental health supports that are integrated into academic instruction, classroom-based practices and school-wide policies.
This approach is not just about addressing this one pressure point from the pandemic. This type of comprehensive effort factors in the reality that while the pandemic exacerbated the mental health needs among our nation’s students, it did not create them.
Even before social distancing and remote learning entered our lexicon and our communities, many of our students suffered from mental health challenges. Less than 10 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that one in five school-aged children were suffering from mental health challenges. Most of those students did not receive adequate mental health treatment, with great inequities in access to these services by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
We now have an extraordinary opportunity — and responsibility — to use these new funds wisely. There are three ways schools can invest available funds to best serve students:
- Invest in teachers’ mental health by creating workplace structures and protocols that encourage staff to focus on self-care and relational care. Doing so will not only benefit teachers’ health and productivity but will enable them to model healthy habits to their students.
- Support the mental health of all students now rather than waiting until students are struggling. Well-designed programs can help students develop resiliency and emotional management skills, as well as build healthy relationships.
- Use mental health screening tools to identify early students who are struggling. Early detection and treatment improve positive outcomes.
Implementing these strategies as part of a cohesive program will go a long way in addressing students’ mental health needs exacerbated by the pandemic, as well as building the skills they will need to live healthy, prosperous and successful lives.
Doing this work takes time, leadership, resources and therefore money. The current availability of funds to do this critical work in education provides us with an opportunity we may not get again — but very much need — in years to come.
Shai Fuxman, EdD, is a senior researcher and behavioral health expert at Education Development Center. He leads initiatives promoting the positive development of youth and oversees the Social and Emotional Learning & Mental Health Academy.