Mental Health Needs in a Pandemic: Resources for our Students

Mental Health Needs in a Pandemic: Resources for our Students

By L. Earl Franks, executive director, National Association for Elementary School Principals and Richard M. Long, executive director, Learning First Alliance

Public schools are facing their biggest challenge: Educating students during a worldwide health pandemic. Public schools have always strived to be a safe haven for all students, a shelter for our most disadvantaged students, and a place for nurture, love and learning. As school this year unfolds—virtually and in-person—the only thing we know for sure is uncertainty.

Uncertainty breeds anxiety and depression. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, suicides, depression and anxiety, and opioid use were rising among adolescents and young people in this country. Now, thousands of children and adults have lost loved ones, seen caregivers lose jobs, suffered from abuse, or are struggling to cope with the myriad of uncertainties as school buildings attempt to reopen. 

In the past, schools would simply be expected to do more with fewer resources. But we now have a unique opportunity to build a system that is more responsive and in line with student and staff needs.

We propose a three-part strategy. First, recruit and hire more mental health professionals to serve the more than 50 million students in the K-12 public schools across the U.S. The current ratios of students-to-mental health professionals is woefully inadequate. Just to get to a ratio of one school counselor for every 250 students—which is less-than-ideal–means we need more than 80,000 new school counselors for the 2020-21 school year. We also need tens of thousands more school social workers and school psychologists. Recruiting and hiring these professionals will not happen quickly, but they can make a significant difference in working directly with students, making referrals, and helping teachers in classrooms.

Second, we need to train and empower teachers to determine the types of physical, social, and emotional supports their students might need as well as provide pre-service preparation in these areas to prospective teachers. This type of training isn’t to put more work on teachers but rather allow them to help their students and families. It builds on anti-bullying, whole child, social-emotional learning programs that are already in place in most schools. But this is explicitly different: Teachers who have the ability to decipher which students need a teacher to offer an empathic ear versus a referral for greater supports makes a difference. While there are many programs to achieve this goal, one such program, Notice. Talk. Act.TM at School developed by the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, has over 10 years’ worth of experience and provides this training for $10-$20 per staff member.

Third, we need to expand engagement with parents and caregivers. Engagement could come in many forms: Teachers, administrators, counselors, and others should be reaching out, listening, and talking with parents about their observations, suggestions, and needs. This takes time and training. The National PTA has training programs for parents to work with their children’s teachers that have been developed over the years and have been shown to work effectively.

All of this takes money, time, and human resources. Hiring new mental health workers and training teachers as mental health advocates will require more money to cover these costs. But we must also think of the long-term: We simply need more professionals to become counselors, social workers, and school psychologists. This will take time, money, for K-12 schools to be able to hire the professionals their students need.

What else needs to be changed? The public’s expectations for academic achievement needs to include the understanding that to get the results we want, we have to invest in social and emotional learning supports.

Without these social and emotional learning supports, we know what will happen in school year 2020-21: Anxiety and stress will kill the ability to learn. We can’t afford to let uncertainty steal our most valuable resource--our children and their futures. We can help students to adapt, learn, and become resilient. This doesn’t happen automatically; it happens with the right interventions at the right times by the right people who are working collaboratively.