‘We’re Not The Same’: As Teens Head Back To Classrooms, Schools Try To Address A Mental Health Crisis

Experts urge educators to focus less on regaining any lost academic ground and more on students’ social and emotional needs.

A mental health crisis existed before the pandemic, but the past year and a half only exacerbated the problem for many young people. Courtneyk / Getty Images
A mental health crisis existed before the pandemic, but the past year and a half only exacerbated the problem for many young people. Courtneyk / Getty Images

‘We’re Not The Same’: As Teens Head Back To Classrooms, Schools Try To Address A Mental Health Crisis

Experts urge educators to focus less on regaining any lost academic ground and more on students’ social and emotional needs.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Summer break has been a relief for Rosio Almazan. The 16-year-old says after being remote all school year at her Chicago public school and feeling isolated and hopeless at times, she enjoyed reconnecting with friends and not having to think of school assignments.

But now, Rosio is starting her junior year at Curie Metro High School. She’s only been an in-person student there for part of her freshman year. She heard all last year how Chicago Public Schools wanted to bring kids back for in-person learning for students’ well-being. She’s not sure if she can believe that yet.

“Sending us back is like, ‘OK, these students have no excuse not to do homework, not go to class, be absent, be distracted,’ ” she said of CPS’ motives to send students back for in-person learning. “It’s almost as if [the effects of the pandemic are] going to just be wiped away because we’re going to go back.”

She worries whether administrators will penalize kids who might not be ready to go back to “normal.”

“Will there be the option of counseling?” Rosio wonders. “Will me going to counseling affect my learning experience because it’s going to be my fault that my grades are going to be bad?”

Rosio said she’s glad more attention is paid to student mental health, but thinks it’s sad that it took a global pandemic for her school district to take note.

Mental health needs among teenagers were on the rise even before COVID-19. The past year and a half of health uncertainty, isolation and other stressors only worsened the problem. But it also brought more attention to a long standing crisis. As students head back to another school year during a pandemic, educators and health care workers say they have been preparing to support them, hoping an infusion of federal COVID-19 relief dollars will help bring meaningful change.

“There is a clear recognition from the federal level, state level, down to the district level that social emotional learning, mental health and supporting the resiliency and coping skills of both kids and adults is central,” said Tim Dohrer, director of the teacher leadership program at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Will there be enough help?

But students like Rosio and others worry that won’t be enough, especially if schools expect students to slip easily back into the school routine. Mental health issues among students as they return to school are both acute and widespread.

Lurie Children’s Hospital, for example, has seen about a 20% increase in emergency department visits for psychiatric reasons over the past year and a half. Calls for therapists have quintupled. Colleen Cicchetti, executive director of the Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie says educators and parents have been looking for resources.

“We put up one course specifically on psychological first aid, which is really thinking about ‘how do you support kids who are experiencing distress,’ ” she said. “We’ve just seen an incredible outpouring of adults asking for help with this issue.”

Kazi Stanton-Thomas is another Chicago teen who struggled during remote learning.

“It was a lot of sobbing — sobbing to myself, because I didn’t want my family to hear,” Kazi said. “I kind of turned off. My personality turned off. And what was left was just anxiety and depression.”

Kazi, who uses the pronoun “they,” said they’re fortunate they had a therapist before the pandemic, but Kazi knows many people didn’t have that. Kazi is part of a teen health council through a youth organization called Mikva Challenge. They focus on teen mental health, especially during the pandemic.

“I just need all school systems to be more accommodating to mental health,” Kazi said.

Kazi Stanton-Thomas tried to keep busy last school year but with most activities remote and limited options to see friends, Kazi says a sense of isolation really took hold. Courtesy of Kazi Stanton-Thomas / WBEZ

As schools open up this month, teachers and staff are getting trained up on identifying levels of stress and how to address them. The Illinois State Board of Education has urged districts to use the millions in federal relief dollars for student social emotional needs. Cicchetti says schools should use those funds with caution.

“It actually doesn’t help us if they disappear at the end of the year, when the grant goes away,” she said. “We’ve got to build sustainable approaches, not just one and done, service delivery. So I hope that’s where policymakers need to be thinking not just about the immediate, but building that long term structure.”

A recent survey by RAND Corporation, a research group, finds seven out of 10 schools will provide mental health programming this year. That’s up from five out of 10 before the pandemic.

Some schools are using the federal money to hire more mental health professionals and offer more training to staff. In Riverside Brookfield High School in the western suburbs, they’re using a new program called SATCHEL to assess all students’ social emotional needs as they come back.

Assistant Principal Beth Augustine said there were plenty of nerves on the first day but overwhelmingly kids and teachers were happy despite the unique challenges of this year.

“We’re starting from scratch,” Augustine said. “Teachers are seeing two classes of kids that they haven’t seen, and juniors only had a little over a year with us.”

Teachers last year weren’t able to build the relationships they normally do with students, especially with many of them keeping their cameras off during remote learning.

“That’s why I think that this quick screener will just sort of give us some baseline data,” Augustine said.

In addition to bringing on extra personnel, the school will screen all students. Some may receive further evaluation to see what help they might need. Augustine said school isn’t a solution to mental health problems, but it can help students get connected to supports.

“If we can get them in the building, at least, if they’re in student services … we can find a place where they can work quietly and work through their anxiety,” she said. “That’s what the social workers and school counselors are great at — focusing on what’s causing the anxiety at that moment.”

The Chicago Teachers Union has been pushing Chicago Public Schools to spend the federal money to hire more staff, including mental health professionals. The school district said it can’t spend that money on new personnel because those funds will dry up in a few years. But the district is using the money to expand mental health services through community partnerships and train staff on dealing with trauma. The district was already due to add more nurses and social workers per the union contract.

Rosio Almazan enjoyed her summer away from the stresses of school and remote learning. Courtesy of Rosio Almazan / WBEZ

Relationships before academics

As schools resume, experts are urging educators not to focus too heavily on regaining lost academic ground at the expense of attending to students’ social and emotional needs.

Dohrer, from Northwestern, said schools may be tempted to seize on academics right away. He said it’s crucial to first build relationships with students.

“If I jump right into my science, right into my math, if I jump right into those things without stopping to recognize — Where are my kids? How are they feeling and experiencing the world right now? And where am I right now? — if we don’t do that first, we’re never going to make progress with academics,” he said.

Dohrer said with new cash on hand, schools have the opportunity to do creative things and make a real change for student mental health.

“There needs to be a recognition that this is not business as usual. We are not going back to the fall of 2019, or even the fall of 2020, before all this happened,” he said. “The kids are not the same. We’re not the same, and we can’t treat it that way.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.