COVID-19's impact has been vast — stretching to all corners of the globe. While the physical risks of the virus command the most attention, one cannot ignore its damage to people's mental health. Children and adolescents have undergone significant changes, from being robbed of important social interactions to sensing the severe stress their parents are experiencing.
Even before the pandemic's repercussions, mental health had become a major concern among the K-12 age group. Unfortunately, many young kids struggle with mental health issues and are not getting the help they need. At best, the onus falls on the education community to recognize warning signs before it's too late.
How Dire Is Mental Health in the K-12 Demographic?
Data summarized by the American Academy of Family Physicians reveals that one in six U.S. children between the ages of six and 17 has a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Of this group, almost half of children who suffer from at least one of these disorders did not receive treatment or counseling from a mental health professional.
The numbers get even more staggering from there. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reports that suicide rates for children between the ages of 10 and 14 nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017 when comparing rates from 2000 to 2007. In teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19, the suicide rate increased 56% in that same period at an especially "accelerated" pace between 2013 and 2017. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists suicide as the third leading cause of death for the 15-19 age group.
Why Are School-Aged Children & Adolescents So Affected?
No one reason exists for the rising incidence of mental health woes among youth, but evidence suggests social media is a significant factor. Research has linked heavy social media use with an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Cyberbullying via digital platforms often causes severe emotional and psychological distress.
Data from Pew Research Center also lists academics as a key mental health influence, with 61% of teens reporting they feel tremendous pressure to get good grades. Looking good and fitting in socially were also highlighted in the survey. Additional factors such as socioeconomic status, past or current trauma and genetic predisposition may also bring about mental health concerns.
How School Counselors Can Advance the Solution
From kindergarten to the end of high school, education is a substantial portion of a child's life. Sometimes, school-aged kids see their teachers more than they see their parents. It makes sense that school staff could be the first line of defense against potential mental health fallout, but that doesn't mean all staff are capable or prepared to serve as interventionists.
A report from education firm EAB titled "Are Districts the Nation's Adolescent Mental Health Care Providers?" supports this notion. The report highlights the challenges school districts face in assuming the role of "primary provider of adolescent mental health services."
"Whether they're ready or not, schools are being forced to serve as the frontline providers of mental health services for America's youth," said EAB Managing Director Pete Talbot. "There's an argument to be made that schools should serve this role since virtually all kids pass through their doors. However, at many schools, administrators and staff are not adequately trained or resourced to fulfill that mission."
EAB recommends school staff to develop certain best practices, such as:
- Assist students who have a mental health-related leave of absence "reintegrate" by implementing thorough back-to-school transition plans and programs.
- Consistently engage students (and educators) to dispel the mental health stigma that continues to permeate society. It's not enough to have a once-yearly presentation; regular conversations are required.
- Build stronger partnerships with community mental health providers and first responders.
- Leverage telepsychiatry and virtual treatment options — particularly in communities where mental health resources are limited.
These are all effective tactics. However, onsite school counselors must be given a voice in a district's foundational mental health strategies to achieve the most comprehensive solution.
Join the Effort: Enroll in an MSE-Counseling Program
The Master of Science in Education (MSE) – Counseling, School Counseling Track online program at the University of Wisconsin-Superior prepares counselors-in-training to mitigate the challenges students of all ages face, whether academic, social, emotional or developmental in nature. The program is hyper-focused on helping students specialize in instruction and innovative coping mechanisms required to meet today's mental health burdens.
A teaching license is not required for admission to the program. Nearly one in five school-aged students currently don't have access to a school counselor at all — an estimated 8 million children with no support system. With the ability to jump right into UW-Superior's MSE – Counseling program, Senior Editor/Writer at The Education Trust Letisha Marrero views a program like this as crucial for the mental health of our youth, especially in current pandemic times when economic strife is a common occurrence.
"Imagine having a parent — or in some cases both [parents] — worrying about keeping a roof over their heads or putting food on the table and what that does to a child. Who can they turn to? If they're lucky, they have a school counselor to talk to about it."
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