Let’s Help Students and Educators Navigate Pandemics, Pressures, and Political Unrest
October 3, 2022
October 3, 2022
By David Naff
The hardest and best job I ever had was as a high school counselor. I was only in that position for four years before leaving the profession (as so many do) eight years ago, but I think about it every day because of the ongoing impact it’s had on me, both personally and professionally. When I would get home and my wife would ask me how things went at school, I often couldn’t remember the details because so much had gone on that day. My days were characterized by challenges and triumphs, both stressful and beautiful.
I had amazing colleagues who were committed to the success of our students, but our morale would dip at times as we grew frustrated by rising demands and dwindling resources. My caseload of 300 students felt entirely manageable on some days and smothering on others. My students were remarkable and inspiring, and accomplished so much more than I could have ever imagined when I was a high school student. They also had needs, like any teenagers, which oftentimes emerged from their circumstances: battling parental drug addiction, experiencing eviction, witnessing violence in their neighborhood, or watching younger siblings after school while mom worked a second job to cover the bills.
All of them had mental health needs. You read that right. Just as I do. Just as you do. Plenty experienced significant (even clinical) levels of depression, anxiety, or distress. We all do, in varying degrees, especially during the formative adolescent years. My students taking five AP classes while playing varsity volleyball and doing homework until 2 a.m. after games and practices had mental health needs, often stemming from perceived high pressure to achieve. So did my students struggling to pass Algebra I. So did my student who was recovering from a concussion she sustained in a soccer game, or my student who was still reeling from an argument he had with his dad that morning, or my student who had to sleep on the porch because her mom locked her out of the house the previous night.
In addition, my students from low-income backgrounds saw their emotional challenges all too often compounded by lack of resources, like my student who had to walk three miles to school because he missed the bus and couldn’t find a ride, or my student who found herself suddenly homeless and didn’t tell anyone. My students also had mental health needs when they were thriving, playing the lead in the school musical, receiving scholarships, finding out they got into their dream college, or landing full time employment as an electrical assistant or cosmetologist after graduation.
I was trained to meet those needs—like other school-based mental health professionals, I’d learned therapeutic techniques designed for intervention in a crisis and offering strategies for coping in the face of adversity. My graduate school professors let me know plainly, though, that I’d need to learn how to deliver all of this in 15 minutes or less because that’s often all the time I’d have with a student during the school day. Ironically, I received no training in the tasks that would ultimately take up the majority of my time: academic advising, college access promotion, and school dropout prevention. All were worthwhile and brought me closer to my students, but a common refrain among our counseling team was how we never seemed to have enough time for individual or group counseling. There were five of us for a school of 1600 students. We shared a wonderful, veteran school social worker with one other high school and elementary school, whose primary task was often outreach to absent students. Our school psychologist also split her time with other schools and primarily worked to support testing for placement in exceptional education. Our nurse was only able to come to our school one day every two weeks.
Today I work with the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (merc.soe.vcu.edu), a researcher-practitioner partnership between the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University and six school divisions in the Richmond metro area. We conduct collaborative research studies on topics identified as relevant by our school division partners to the needs of their students and educators.
It’s no surprise that our latest study focuses on supporting mental health in schools.
Our team for the study was made up of university faculty and graduate students in education, counseling, and social work as well as school counselors, social workers, and psychologists from our partnering school divisions. One of our first steps was to develop a common definition of mental health, informed by existing definitions from the CDC, Virginia Department of Education, mentalhealth.gov, and prominent recent literature on this topic. Our team thought it was important to emphasize the dynamic nature of mental health, how it can be characterized by negative and positive emotions, and how it is important at every developmental stage.
What we learned is that the mental health needs of our students and educators have never been more significant. This is certainly due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it reshaped the school experience. No one can deny the impact on student learning during this time and how it exacerbated existing race and socioeconomic status disparities. The just-as-pressing emotional wellbeing of K-12 students has been getting increasing media attention, and for good reason. The mental health of the professionals striving to meet their needs deserves equal attention, as educators are currently experiencing high levels of burnout and are leaving the profession at accelerated rates.
Compounding all this are urgent safety concerns in the wake of the massacre of 19 elementary students and two teachers in Uvalde, TX, one of 27 school shootings leading to death or injury this year. One in four educators say that climate change is affecting their school to some extent, offering another source of stress and anxiety. In addition, educators here navigate the potential of being reported for the perceived promotion of “divisive concepts,” something that’s been met with considerable pushback by Virginia education leaders. Relatedly, anti-immigrant rhetoric has led Latina/o/x students and multilingual families to live in increased fear of harassment while educators find their ability to combat such rhetoric to be hampered by political restrictions.
The need for studying and supporting mental health in schools in this context is overwhelming and complex, yet it must be done in earnest, and it must be done now.
We recently did a systematic review of 104 international empirical studies on mental health, and it’s revealed the scope of the challenges we face. In the past three years, K-12 students have reported staggering levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, often to the point of clinical diagnosis. They have increasingly used the internet, devices, and social media, often to the point of addiction. Students have endured social isolation, stress from rapidly transitioning to online learning, and massive disruptions to their daily routines and sleep patterns. We learned how caregiver and child mental health is closely connected, as studies repeatedly showed strong correlations between parent and student levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. We learned that certain student groups, such as pre-K students, have seen their mental health particularly affected by the pandemic. We’ve seen a high level of susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 in elementary schools, and acute feelings of social isolation in adolescence. We’ve seen higher levels of mental health issues among females, non-binary students, Black, Latinx, and low-income students. Asian-American students and their families have endured pandemic-related racism. Encouragingly, research also showed considerable evidence of resilience and positive coping strategies in our youth.
Altogether, these studies suggest that meeting the mental health needs of students will fall to all stakeholders in K-12 education. How do we do that?
First, we still have more to learn. Our team is preparing to explore existing efforts in Virginia school divisions to meet the mental health needs of their students, faculty/staff, and families, and what characteristics define successful programs and initiatives. We’re also investigating the emotional and professional capacity of Virginia K-12 educators to meet their students’ needs, which requires us to learn more about their own mental health and the training they’ve received to offer emotional support for their students.
Based on what we’ve found so far, we have several recommendations.
First, we need more school-based K-12 mental health professionals. The American School Counselor Association’s recommended student ratio is 250 to 1, but in the 2020-2021 school year, Virginia was higher at every level (375 in elementary, 325 in middle, and 300 in high school). The ratios for school social workers and school psychologists are even farther from what’s recommended. Not only that, those professionals’ time needs to be protected enough to allow them to be available to help promote students’ social and emotional wellbeing. Considering that youth are 21 times more likely to receive mental health support in schools than in community-based clinics, it makes sense to finally staff our schools accordingly.
Second, we must thoughtfully prepare teachers to support their students’ mental health needs. We need shared language about how mental health encompasses more than stress, anxiety, and depression. While specific training in this area often happens in graduate programs for school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists, it must also be a focus of training for pre-service and in-service teachers. This is in no way a replacement for the critical function of school-based mental health professionals, and we must be careful to not place yet another expectation on our teachers, who are already overworked and underpaid. However, when approached thoughtfully, equipping teachers for student mental health support could offer added value not only for their students, but also for the climate of their classrooms and schools. Restorative practices are one example of an evidence-based method of community building that could be a useful foundation for teacher training efforts.
Finally, any effective model of mental health support in schools must attend equally to the needs of the educators working there. Schools and divisions often offer plenty of programs and initiatives for student mental health but comparatively fewer for the staff members working with them. This leads to compassion fatigue, often mistaken for burnout, where individuals helping others finds themselves psychologically and even physiologically taxed. This is one potential explanation for what we’re witnessing in educator attrition. School divisions should invest time, energy, and resources in supporting the mental health of their employees, as well as their students. A public commitment of this scope could prove transformative at a time where schools are already reimagining how they operate. Let’s place mental health support at all levels in a school at the center of those efforts.
On my drive into work one Friday morning in June I stopped behind a school bus unloading in front of a middle school and witnessed a COVID-masked teacher offering his disembarking students a series of personalized handshakes that they had meticulously crafted over the course of the year. It was as concrete evidence of the importance of relationships in public education as one could ever need. I immediately flashed back to my time as a school counselor, standing in the front lobby in the morning as my students poured into the building, wearing a vest because I thought it looked cool (Justin Timberlake was wearing them a lot back then) and offering high fives to each passerby on what my students and I deemed “high five Fridays.” I thought about what it must be like to work in a school these days, and how a secret handshake is not nearly enough to rise to the moment of what students and educators must be navigating, while at the same time encapsulating everything that they might need right now. When the last student stepped off the bus, the stop sign on the side retracted to allow passage. I idled, caught up in a moment of nostalgia and admiration for what I had witnessed. They made their way up the stairs into the building, just as they surely had done every day, steadily proceeding as they knew they could.
Naff, PhD, is the Associate Director of the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium and an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Hopeful Futures campaign is a gathering of 17 organizations, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Healthy Schools Campaign, UNICEF USA, and the National Center for School Mental Health, created to help ensure that kids get the mental health services they need.
The organization has put together a report card scoring every state on how well it supports mental health in its schools, along with recommendations on how to do so better. HF’s website also offers strategies, solutions, and ways to advocate for kids in what’s been labeled a “state of emergency” in children’s mental health by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Learn more at hopefulfutures.us.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers in Virginia earn 32.7% less in weekly wages than other (non-teacher) college-educated workers. Virginia’s teacher wage penalty is the worst in the nation.Take Action Now