June 30, 2020

Student Stress: Compounding the COVID-19 Crisis

Ellen Yan
A child looks out a window while holding a teddy bear

This article was originally published at The Learning Counsel.

We don’t have to think twice about protecting children from physical harm. Our natural instinct kicks in to help keep kids away from dangers like a hot stove or busy street. But how best to maintain our children’s mental health isn’t quite so intuitive.

The pandemic has laid bare this strange dichotomy. Parents, teachers and counselors have spent more than two months helping students avoid physical contact, keep their hands washed and practice social distancing. But as many parts of the country begin to ease their restrictions on social activity, we’re only now starting to realize how much we’ve needed to take action to address students’ mental anxiety, and the news isn’t good.

In a recent survey of California students, the percentage that gave their mental wellness a low rating (three or less on a 10-point scale) increased nearly threefold due to the pandemic, from 8 percent to 23 percent. The survey found over half of California’s students could be in need of mental health support.

If Hollywood scriptwriters were asked to create a real-world scenario to maximize the stress on our young people, it’s logical that they might pick a viral pandemic.

Foremost in inducing anxiety has been the total disruption of students’ normal daily routine. The ride to and from school, the daily physical activity of recess or varsity sports, the face-to-face interaction with teachers and classmates; all of it is gone and won’t return for months to come. Add to that the extended isolation through social distancing from everyone they love – friends, grandparents, teachers, coaches and neighbors.

What’s worse, for much of this time young people have had no certainty as to when normal life will return. Will I see classmates again before next fall? Will we be able to go to summer camp this year? Will I be able to go to the pool or see Grandma and Grandpa? The adults in their lives – typically the pillars of knowledge and stability – haven’t been able to provide any easy answers to these questions.

This is all before kids look at social media or turn on the news, which for several months was been a never-ending downward spiral of increasingly negative content tallying cancellations, infection totals and deaths.

For many kids, these challenges have been compounded by the trauma of one or both parents losing their job. And tragically too many households are trying to cope with the loss of a family member due to coronavirus.

Parents, teachers and administrators are doing their best to address these mental health challenges. Many feel inadequately up to the task. I recently spoke with an assistant principal who was trying to keep up with the day-to-day monitoring of students’ mental health. With digital learning in effect, she expressed her frustration and fatigue in trying to deal with this challenge. “It’s overwhelming,” she said. “I don’t have a clinical mental health background, and yet I’m tasked with all this?”

Her frustration is common, and understandable.

In one of our Distance Learning Weekly sessions, school psychologist Dr. James Koeppel said even administrators and teachers with little experience in mental health issues still have a role to play. One key realization is to not expect someone else to be the mental health gatekeeper.

“It doesn’t have to be someone with a fancy degree or a psychotherapist,” Koeppel said. Especially during this pandemic, Koeppel said a parent or teacher will likely be the most important component to providing a positive intervention for a student.

As adults working to ensure student success, all of us – including parents, teachers, counselors and administrators – have a responsibility to be aware of the warning signs for mental health fatigue from the Centers for Disease Control, and to talk to each other when we see them:

  • Excessive crying or irritation in younger children
  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Irritability and “acting out” behaviors in teens
  • Poor school performance or avoiding school
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain

We also have to double-down on our mental health efforts in this post-pandemic world. Teachers and counselors no longer are interacting with students in person. Without that face-to-face counseling, the warning signs are much harder to see. This means that spotting these cues is going to take more work from teachers and counselors than usual (much like many other aspects of remote learning, unfortunately.).

Our work to address kids’ mental health doesn’t have to be a mystery. If we are all empowered to watch for the warning signs, we can work together to address these issues in a holistic way.