Even as things across the country start to feel more normal, many of us are still dealing with the mental health effects of the pandemic. Whether we’re feeling anxious about returning to the office or attending crowded events, it’s understandable to be a little apprehensive. This anxiety isn’t just for adults, however, with children and teenagers across the country still reeling from the frequent changes to their learning environment.

The silver lining? It’s now much clearer how big of a role schools play in the mental health of children. Let’s take a closer look at the importance of mental health resources in K-12 schools and the challenges they face to help students be their best.

More Than a Lesson Plan

Most of us know that school isn’t just about the subjects we study. It’s vital for socialization and provides students with the opportunity to interact with their peers and learn important life skills. Educators have recognized the importance of this aspect of school, emphasizing social emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom. Through SEL, students develop healthy identities, manage emotions, show empathy, establish supportive relationships, and make responsible decisions – all contributing to overall better mental health.

This increase in SEL in schools is critical, as strengthening social and emotional skills is crucial for academic success. Mental health is directly related to learning; students struggling with depression or anxiety simply can’t process new information the same as other students. Schools also serve as “first responders” in terms of student mental health issues, explains NPR. Teachers and staff can quickly note changes in behavior that could point to mental illness and provide resources for their students. This became a lot harder when classes when virtual, however, adding another challenge for both teachers and students.

K-12 Mental Health Pre-COVID

Unfortunately, mental health concerns have been rising in K-12 schools even before COVID-19, with the number of students reporting symptoms of depression on the rise since the early 2000s. While the recent US Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health explains that the pandemic worsened the situation, other factors like academic pressure and social media have been in play for years. On the bright side, rising numbers may also be attributed to students being more willing to discuss the once taboo topic of mental health.

While we’re all familiar with staff shortages by now, K-12 schools have always struggled to maintain recommended mental-health specialist to student ratio. The American School Counselor Association recommends one school counselor per every 250 children, but the current average in schools is around 427 students for every counselor. School psychologist ratios are even worse, with some states approaching a ratio of 1:5000, far exceeding the recommended one school psychologist per 500 students recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists.

This means that teachers are often left shouldering mental health care in addition to their long list of other responsibilities, even when they’re not trained to provide the support needed. At the same time, staff shortages have meant that even when school counselors are on campus, they may be drafted to teach classes or substitute instead of providing dedicated mental health services. These problems have only been exacerbated by the pandemic – which has been reflected in the mental health of students.

The Effects of COVID-19

With so much change, it’s understandable that the negative mental health effects of COVID-19 were evident in students early in the pandemic. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported an increase in pediatric mental health-related emergency department visits starting in April 2020, remaining elevated through October 2020. Compared to 2019, mental health-related visits rose by 24% for children aged 5-11 and 31% for children aged 12-17. By the fall, a trio of children’s mental health organizations declared an emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

Unfortunately, numbers didn’t improve in 2021 as the pandemic continued. The Children’s Hospital Association reports that from January to September of 2021, the number of mental health visits to emergency departments at children’s hospitals was 14% higher than pre-pandemic numbers. Some hospitals even reported a 40% increase in mental health visits from 2020. Students across the country reported feeling symptoms of depression and anxiety as they struggled with social isolation, followed by an abrupt return to in-person school.

K-12 school mental health professionals also report that schools are dealing with more grief than ever before, with an estimated 175,000 children losing a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. This is especially troubling when coupled with the fact that according to an Education Week analysis of federal data, nearly 40% of all school districts across the nation did not have a school psychologist on staff during the first full year of the pandemic.

Returning to the Classroom

While students have largely returned to in-person learning, K-12 schools still face challenges. Many educators report that students lack social skills and seem less mature, with high schoolers behaving like middle school students and younger students forgetting basic classroom rules and expectations. This is especially true for younger students that have spent most of their formal school experience learning from home.

In an interview with NPR in early 2022, Dr. Tami Benton, psychiatrist-in-chief for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains that during the pandemic, students missed the chance to develop the social skills they normally would in the classroom. Now that students are back in school, they’re being forced to catch up in unusual circumstances. Accordingly, teachers have had to re-learn things too, like the time management required to teach while working through these social growing pains.

The Way Forward

Even though it may seem disheartening to think of the mental health struggles students are still facing post-pandemic, schools have made great strides to address these concerns head on. Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, as well as other pandemic relief funds, amounted to over $190 billion in education and health grants – some of which can be spent on mental health.

Schools are taking advantage of this, with PEW reporting that states like Arizona, Maryland, and Georgia are using federal relief funds to hire more counselors, nurses, and social workers to improve their student to mental health professional ratios. States are also enacting laws to support these efforts, including statutes in eight states that allow K-12 students to miss a certain amount of school days for mental health reasons. Furthermore, over 16 states now require K-12 school staff and teachers to take courses on identifying mental distress in their students.

Some states have taken a grassroots approach to mental health, with states like California, Illinois, and Utah enacting laws recommending high school students take mental health training themselves and learn to spot early signs of problems in their peers. Popular options include Mental Health First Aid’s training designed to help teens recognize and respond to mental illness and Aevidum chapters, school clubs which help raise suicide awareness and reduce mental illness stigma. With students speaking up and facing mental health challenges head on, there’s reason to be optimistic for a brighter future.

To learn more about how FACTS Ed can help your school create a personalized professional development program that prepares your teachers for the challenges of the modern classroom, including utilizing SEL to improve teacher turnover, click here.