During Mental Health Month earlier this year, GoGuardian Beacon’s general manager, Elle Yan, hosted conversations with mental health experts on our Distance Learning Weekly webinar series. James W. Koeppel and Cindy Cothran have joined us in this episode.

About the guests:

James W. Koeppel, Psy. D

Credentialed school psychologist and licensed clinical psychologist who has expertise on how social, emotional, and mental health interplays with learning and behaviors.

Cindy Cothran, LPC-MHSP

Licensed Professional Counselor from Centerstone, an organization that provides community mental health services.

Learn more about them and their expertise in the video below:

Highlights from the conversation:

Shifts in how schools support mental health today

James: Back in the olden days, schools were just educational institutions, that’s it. You went there, and you had to follow whatever curriculum that the teacher decided to do… But over the years, schools have become important for the physical well-being... with a lot of schools having health centers located in the schools or school districts. And also the mental health, especially in recent years, there has been a great emphasis on the importance of mental health to learning and how emotional well-being affects memory and the ability to access curriculum. Currently, in this particular age right now of COVID-19, there is a great emphasis and a great shift...on looking at mental health, because...the whole country is stuck inside. We are social, and we need to connect with people, and we're not able to do that. So what I've seen is...a great emphasis on especially connection in this time, typically through mediums like the one that we're on here...through some kind of a video platform or emails, various chats, electronically... So it has been this great shift, I think, over the long term. And then right now, here, immediately, there's been a big emphasis on mental health.

Cindy: As school has let out from being in person, we've had to adjust as well and figure out how to continue to connect with those kids and how to connect with families, because even though they're not in school, they still have the same social-emotional learning needs that they had when they were in the school buildings. So we're trying to find ways, like how can we connect to the very best of our ability levels? We're doing a lot of telehealth...we use...any kind of private messaging system that we can...phone calls for those people who don't have the right connections that we need. We really love to do the face-to-face videos because we find that kids can get much more engaged and excited, and they can see our faces, and we can see theirs… Also, we've made sure that we're doing a lot more community connections to make sure that none of the families that we're serving are missing out or not knowing about the services that the schools are offering...so that they have the food resources that they need or the financial resources that they need... It's taking all of us to sort of band together right now to make sure that everybody is as well-cared for. 

The recent emphasis on social and mental well-being of students

James: We used to not really care so much about mental health in schools or emotional well-being of kids. They were sort of on their own, and their parents had to take care of it. But thankfully in recent years...there’s been much more emphasis on this. What has been found unequivocally is that kids that have mental health problems—it doesn't have to be some kind of diagnosable syndrome, but just some emotional difficulties that maybe a lot of us have gone through ourselves as adults or are currently going through—kids that have these difficulties are absolutely impacted in the classroom. There is no question that learning suffers when kids have emotional or psychological distress… Attention is focused off of the classroom and is more internalized. So kids become more focused on their own sadness or anxieties or whatever issues might be going on with them instead of engaging in the classroom. We also find that memory is affected. 

Cindy: The whole onslaught of things that are coming at you all the time, and you're just not sure what the next thing is going to be—that's really overwhelming to our brains and our immune systems. So what we want to do for kids is we want to help them create structure and order and go back to those rituals that we're used to. And so that's one of the things that, as we're reaching out to do telehealth with the kids, we also want to make sure that we're connecting with the parents and we're talking with them about ways that they can help their kids just feel safe and feel normal and do all those things that they normally do…maybe even some things that they haven't normally done...be very structured, create routine...incorporating a lot of physical activity and movement and timeout time outside, where that's possible. And then also connecting and talking and spending time together and doing things that are not just online, but are face to face where we're interacting with other. There's nothing necessarily wrong with video games and being online. It's just that we can't do that to the detriment of the actual connections and attachments, because that's what helps us all feel safe. 

Limiting or alleviating stress in kids

Cindy: When kids get really stressed out, they act out or they want to go into a device, especially those older teens… They want to spend a lot of time just on their devices... But we also know that gets into a feedback loop. That means that they're not dealing with their emotions. So we want to limit the time. It's not bad. We just want to limit it.

James: The best “device”...to help in toxic stress is other people. What saves us—kids or adults—when we have this chronic stress is somebody else around who can help us deal with that stress, who can be there for us, who can talk with us. It doesn't have to be somebody with a fancy degree and a psychotherapist. It could be a parent. In fact, most often it is. It could be a teacher. It could be an administrator. And now in this day of COVID, it is absolutely essential and correct to go ahead and make that connection via some kind of a video connection device… It’s perfectly fine even to do some of those more technical aspects of helping emotionally, like psychotherapy, perfectly fine to do online. That's been shown to be efficacious, and that's been going on for years, even over the phone.

James: I see this period as really needing that kind of approach a crisis intervention approach, not necessarily a psycho-therapeutic approach, maybe for those kids and adults that do have some real serious anxiety, some serious depression that they're having as a result of this COVID situation. But for the vast majority of us, I think the way to deal with the stress that's going on here is through this crisis intervention type of approach, and there's many different types of curricula that can teach crisis intervention. 

Closing thoughts

Cindy: For school administrators, no action is too small. Everything is important that they're doing right now. We all need that sense of connection. We all need to feel that we're in this together. And so whether it's the school reaching out to meet those physical needs...whether it is reaching out to do a video chat... Don't think that there's any action that's too small to connect. That's really going to make those huge connections in our kids' brains. And that's going to help our kids be much safer and, in fact, help them not end up in those crisis situations.

James: Connection is key. But I think school administrators need to focus on their teachers. Their teachers are the ones who are interacting directly with the students and with the families most often, and they're affected by this. None of us are immune. They are feeling anxious. They are feeling depressed. They are feeling out of control sometimes. We all are. So it's important for the school administrators to really put in that effort to connect with their teachers... Getting together and talking and discussing events or discussing feelings can help the teachers to kind of distress, to connect with their administrators, to connect with others, and that can help them be better and more present for their kids.


If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or feeling hopeless, please call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.