Why districts need to provide mental health services during COVID-19, report reveals

As the mental wellbeing of high schoolers are negatively affected by social distancing policies, school staff are moving supportive clubs online, answering hotlines and using electronic referrals
By: | April 28, 2020
In response to social distance policies negatively affecting student mental health in high schools, districts are providing additional school mental health services and school mental health counseling programs.gettyimages.com: Justin Paget

Social isolation as a result of the novel coronavirus is having a negative effect on student mental health in high school, the latest edition of a recurring monthly survey finds.

The amount of young adults aged 16 to 18 who felt “frequently” lonely increased from 30% to 46% in March while the percentage of those who were “very frequently” lonely rose from 20% in February and March to 40% in April, according to Premise Data, a global data platform. The survey also found that the percentage of those who feel isolated very frequently has been steadily increasing from February and March to April: 23%, 30% and 50% respectively.

“It’s important that school mental health counseling staff helps students individually who may need one-on-one support and work with other school staffers and teachers to infuse critical social-emotional pieces into online learning,” says Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association, a foundation that promotes professional and ethical practices in school mental health services.

Related: Face student anxiety head-on in light of coronavirus uncertainty

Related: How to propel social-emotional learning in online education

Related: How online learning is unmasking disparities

“More importantly, counselors need to engage families and community agencies, so if there are students who need more help than a counselor can provide, then family and community agencies can offer that additional support.”

Connecting with K-12 leaders to improve mental health during COVID-19

However, due to school closures, most efforts have focused on transitioning to online learning, which has inadvertently left counseling by the wayside.

“School counseling has been very much an afterthought, and district leaders and school boards need to understand that counseling is necessary in the virtual world to ensure the wellbeing of students,” says Cook. “Additionally, counselors are more important now more than ever not just in the virtual setting, but when brick and motor schools open again.”

School mental health counseling and other programs

Some district leaders have been ramping up their school mental health services in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

In Georgia, Five Forks Middle School in Gwinnett County Public Schools has reinstated various afterschool clubs virtually to support students, including the GayStraight Alliance, reports Cook.

In California, a licensed clinical social worker at Newport-Mesa USD checks a hotline three times a day that students and parents can call for help. “We get back to people who call us within 24 hours,” says Phil D’Agostino, director of student and community services.

In addition to conversing with students via Zoom to improve student mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers at the district’s 32 schools send electronic referrals to their principal when there’s a potential mental health crisis. School leaders then send these referrals to the proper authorities. “We are trying to roll with the punches in this era of the coronavirus,” says D’Agostino, “and we are firing on all cylinders.”

For more coronavirus coverage, click here.