Life has been turned upside down by COVID-19. For kids and teens, the predictability of familiar routines—going to school, seeing friends, participating in extracurricular activities—is no longer a source of comfort and structure. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like things will be going back to normal anytime soon.
Additionally, in these times of increased uncertainty, fear, and anxiety for adults, we can expect that these feelings are passed along to children and teens. These drastic changes have had a significant impact on the mental health of our students. Although knowing these issues exist is not surprising, a better understanding of the data can help us to further understand these challenges. With this understanding, we can fully support our students and families. The data collected from Mental Health America’s (MHA) screening program allows for rare insights into the mental health of young people during this pandemic.
MHA’s screening program (MHAScreening.org) has a suite of free, confidential, and anonymous clinically validated tools available to individuals to use to assess their mental health and determine if they are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness. One of these screens is designed for youth (ages 11 to 17) who are concerned that their emotions, attention, or behaviors might be signs of a problem.
The screening shows that more young people are concerned about their mental health. We’ve seen a 20 percent increase in the number of people taking the Youth Screen between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020. Not only are more young people taking the screening test, but more also are scoring at-risk. In March 2020, 76 percent of those who took the Youth Screen scored at-risk—a 5 percent increase from February and a 10 percent increase over the average rate of at-risk screens between September and December 2019.
Unsurprisingly, the main contributor to their mental health problems right now is loneliness or isolation, with 75 percent of youth who scored at-risk indicating this as the source of their problems. This is followed by the related issues of social life or relationships (69 percent). Family relationships can be stressed by increased time together in close quarters but may be especially troubling for LGBTQ youth whose families are not affirming or are even openly hostile.
Nearly half (44.6 percent) of at-risk youth screeners say that past trauma is affecting their mental health now, which is concerning if a parent or guardian is the source of that trauma, given stay-at-home orders. It is particularly difficult for school personnel to identify if a young person is in a traumatic or abusive living situation since they aren’t seeing them on a daily basis to notice behaviors that might indicate this type of problem at home.
Difficulties at school with academics or learning also were reported by nearly half (44.1 percent) of at-risk youth screeners as contributing to their mental health problems. The abrupt shift from face-to-face to remote learning likely has a role to play. Stress may be compounded in situations where multiple children are living in one home without a digital device available for each child, or where there is no internet access.
For those who have learning disabilities, the lack of one-on-one, in-person assistance and other accommodations in remote settings is an added challenge. Furthermore, materials or learning tools in languages other than English may be limited, and young people in households where their parents or guardians do not speak English can’t get help with their schoolwork.
Coronavirus rounds out the list of the top five issues causing mental health distress to youth at 27.7 percent. Kids and teens know that life has changed because of the coronavirus. They see that it has other people worried, so it makes sense for them to be worried as well. Interestingly, family financial problems are near the bottom of the list of things causing problems for youth screeners (followed only by bullying), with 15.7 percent of at-risk screeners saying that it has affected their mental health. We do know, however, that family finances, or rather lack thereof, contribute to issues of food insecurity. Anecdotal observations and statistics relating to the numbers of children who participate in free or reduced-cost school meal programs confirm access to food is a problem facing young people during COVID-19 school shutdowns.
How to help
Young people aren’t the only ones struggling, of course. The COVID-19 crisis has parents dealing with many stressors, including job security and financial stability. If they’re not able to work from home, they’re looking for child care so they can go to their workplace and risk exposure to coronavirus, all while trying to help their children learn. So, what can be done to support students and their families?
The limitations of stay-at-home orders and social-distancing mandates leave school personnel reliant on technology to provide help. Districts can support these efforts by providing devices to school personnel since often there are restrictions or prohibitions around the use of personal devices. Training to use district-issued devices and remote learning platforms also may be necessary for some personnel. One-on-one video chats between teachers and students, and teachers and parents, can be used whenever possible to take the place of tutoring and parent-teacher conferences. Special educators, school counselors, social workers, and other support personnel also can leverage these tools to do their jobs. When video chat isn’t an option, telephone calls will have to suffice.
While the tools and the channels for supporting students and parents in a remote setting exist, it is important to avoid making assumptions about what is needed for support. These are uncharted waters for everyone, and some will adapt more easily than others. Listen to families and encourage parents and caregivers to listen to their children. Connect parents with other parents so they can support each other. Encourage and provide them with strategies for taking advantage of virtual social opportunities. Collaborate with wraparound service providers, and keep families informed of available supports. Be honest and open about expectations for academic performance.
Ask students and their families about the challenges they are facing and the kind of support they need to better deal with both remote learning and the stress of these forced life changes. Most importantly, remember that the COVID-19 crisis is a learning opportunity for everyone involved in education.
Danielle Fritze is the director of public education and visual communications for Mental Health America, where Maddy Reinert serves as program manager of population health. NSBA’s Center for Safe Schools is cohosting a webinar, “Youth Mental Health: Lessons from MHA Screening” with MHA on Aug. 4. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.