As we are flooded with “self care” reminders and hashtags about mental health, even commercials about therapy apps, I look at my stepsons, who are 14 and 16, and wonder how COVID-19 has really affected them. Did they make it out of this unscathed? I had a conversation with Amy Stemper, a middle school psychologist at Samuel E. Shull Middle School in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, to hear about her experience pre- and post-COVID. The following is a summary of our conversation and her recommendations to schools.
Q: Before COVID, what were the issues surrounding mental health?
A: Before COVID the main issues in middle school were things like: self-esteem, self-identity, and kids still being bullied and cruel to one another. Mental health has always been an invisible struggle because you may never know what a child is going through. Drugs don’t seem to be the problem yet in middle school. Possibly other, wealthier districts are having this problem. Another problem is violence with kids in school. They want to fight each other from video games like Fortnite. Then, enter a year and a half of remote learning.
Q: Post COVID, what does mental health look like?
A: There are higher levels of depression and anxiety magnified by COVID. COVID brought about so many systemic societal worries and concerns like parents losing jobs, not knowing if you’re going to see friends, social isolation, and being disconnected. This isolation has resulted in not knowing how to talk to each other and resolve conflict, so she participates in a lot of peer mediation. The kids not having that face to face interaction and having trouble reading body language and social cues, which are crucial to understanding each other and empathizing with each other. Kids were already behind emotionally because of screen time and cell phones, and COVID pushed them further from each other.
There’s a big resistance to ask for help. If there isn’t a huge level of trust from the adults in the school, the kids aren’t going to ask for help. It seems the longer kids were remote, the more fragile that level of trust has become. Witah their school being remote for a year and a half, the relationships between students and faculty need to be rebuilt again.
Q: What can schools do to support mental health problems?
A: After hearing stories of kids at such a young age who are struggling with more than just “middle school stuff” and on a much more elevated level—due to COVID—I asked, is there anything schools can do? Here’s what she suggested:
1. Build trust in relationships between school authorities and students
Amy mentioned the conflict at the school and students not knowing where to go resolve this. Yes, they go to the school counselor or psychologist, but there are other people who the school has hired who are more than happy to help. She mentioned the security guards at the school. Because of their walkie-talkies, students are more afraid to approach them. However, she said they are so friendly and will talk to anyone, walk to your class, and help resolve peer conflicts. She wishes more students would use them as a resource.
2. Create a tip line and protocol on how to manage it
Her school has a tip line via a Google form on their website. The only problem with this is it’s multiple choice on what your problem is, and if someone submits the form over the weekend, it could potentially not be resolved or addressed until the next school day. Also, if people are on vacation, there could be a lag as well. There needs to be a better way for students to reach out, she urges.
3. Know what to do when you see the warning signs
Having suicidal thoughts is very serious, however having a plan on how you’re going to do it is recommendation for immediate action. Ask your child or student if they have had suicidal thoughts, and if their answer is yes, ask the follow up question of how. If they are prepared with this answer, it’s time to seek immediate help.
4. Create an environment of inclusivity
Amy mentioned there is still bullying, with students resorting to social media to verbally attack their peers. Amy explained that during the pandemic a teacher started an online LBGTQ club where they met through Zoom. She said all the students in it turned off their cameras and used avatars for their profile pictures, and the chat was anonymous as well. It was a huge success in creating inclusivity and a safe environment. She also mentioned that their school had motivational speakers with disabilities come and speak to help normalize differences, and then they also hosted breakout sessions with these speakers.
Q: How can your school technology support mental health?
A:There are four technology related things schools can do to help communicate and promote mental health resources at your school.
1. Staff pages that are easy to find
Especially at the beginning of a new school year, take it as an excuse to introduce new staff online. If they are the “security guards with the walkie-talkies” maybe share a photo of them out of uniform doing what they like, eating their favorite foods, or with their pets to make them more approachable or relatable. Have the pages easy to find and put a name to the face. This will also help build trust between students and staff when the students need help.
2. Build a mental health resource center on your school website
It can be a page or series of pages where students can access local resources, a suicide hotline, numbers for social services etc. This district in Virginia has created a mental health resource hub on their school website to help with the ever growing fentanyl and opioid crisis. Make the page easy to find or promote through your school app, family messaging, and newsletter. Also, promote on social media if more of your students are getting their information there.
3. Two-way communication tip line
Two-way communication will be quicker than staff checking their emails on a Monday morning. Through your school app, have students submit tips, or ask for help. Have a specific faculty group (instead of one person) it goes to and they would receive notifications, even if it was on a weekend. In your mental health resource center have a “how to” submit a tip line through your school app outlining the process, for families or kids who may not be that tech savvy. Also, include a form on your website that is translatable, mobile responsive, and accessible for your school community to access such as this:
4. Feature your clubs and their calendars
Clubs help create an environment of belonging and inclusivity. Create easy-to-find club pages on your website. Also encourage a Zoom dial-in for members who would like to remain anonymous, like in the LBGTQ club did. Have separate club calendars students and families can subscribe to so they won’t miss an event or meeting.
“No one has escaped this in their own way,” Amy said. This is true. The news is barely covering COVID-19, the mask mandate is retired, but there is still an aftermath that has affected everyone in some way. She said that progress is slow and healing is going to take time. Amy added that kids are resilient and they are going to continue to adapt as long as schools continue to create a culture of acceptance through activities and clubs to join, staff that’s supported, and of course, school psychologists.