Orange County educators discuss how the pandemic has affected their students’ mental health and what they’re doing about it.
The pandemic has left its mark on pretty much every field, including, of course, the school system. Being confined to the home without much social interaction has impacted many students within both public and private school systems.
We talked to some experts at private and public schools about how they’re working to overcome the mental health struggles presented by COVID-19.
“We have noticed that many students have higher levels of anxiety brought about by the uncertainty and ever-changing rules regarding COVID — wearing masks, quarantining, online school, hybrid, back on campus, etc.,” said Heritage Oak Private Education Head of School Latrese Jackson. “Students also missed out on the essential development of social skills. This year is better, however, last year students struggled with peer relationships. I think it had to do with the fact they had been online for so long. When they returned to campus, many students had difficulty with things like granting personal space and reading social cues.”
Increased levels of anxiety and depression have been common for students who are adjusting to life on campus.
“The most common areas of mental health support needed for our students include anxiety-related symptoms, with intense feelings of fear and worry about social environments, peer interactions, demands of school or loss of hope for their future,” said Laguna Beach Unified School District Director of Social and Emotional Support Michael Keller, Ed.D. “Additionally, students are experiencing depressive-related symptoms, including increased and persistent sadness and withdrawal from school, peers or activities.”
Students who were particularly social prior to the abrupt change seemed to experience harsher effects.
“Prolonged periods of isolation from peers and teachers left students feeling cut off and alone,” said Jill Thomas, licensed marriage and family therapist at Fairmont Private Schools. “Students who were particularly social and active in their school community noticed a marked decline in mood as the positive outlets used to manage stress were taken away from them [like clubs and sports]. Students with strong inner resilience could ‘bounce back’ easier than those without these skills. Hence, teachers had to take extra steps to help students re-acclimate to a social environment.”
Schools Offering Help
Because so many students are struggling mentally, schools are trying to help. Both private and public schools have stepped up their game in order to give students the most support they can provide.
“We have been fortunate to expand our mental health resources significantly over the last several years,” said Santa Margarita Catholic High School’s Director of Wellness Joy Cleary, LCSW, PPS. “SMCHS has 11 wellness and school counselors and will continue to assess staffing and supports to meet student needs. We also formed a student school climate committee to keep us informed about how students are doing.
“Additionally, SMCHS has a team of ‘Speak UP!’ ambassadors, trained as peer helpers, to provide safe social-emotional support to classmates. During sophomore year, students view the powerful 25-minute play ‘Speak UP!’ performed by Santa Margarita students. The play, written as an IB theater class project by now SMCHS alumni, gives voice to some of the most troubling and traumatic issues facing young people today in a developmentally appropriate format.”
Jackson said because Heritage Oak is a private school with small class sizes, they have the ability to be in consistent contact with students and parents, checking in with how they are doing and letting parents know if they notice their child acting in a way that is out of character.
Thomas said Fairmont Private Schools’ Counseling Department is staffed with licensed professionals with many years of experience working with students and in crisis management.
“Fairmont partners with the Orange County Department of Education to provide annual and intermittent training for staff on mental health topics such as identifying early childhood trauma, recognizing the signs of teen depression and positive discipline techniques,” Thomas said. “Therapists provide discussions and presentations for parents on a wide variety of mental health issues throughout the year.”
Ryan Burris, Capistrano Unified School District’s chief communications and public engagement officer, said, “CUSD’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports, also known as MTSS, defines a system, which includes supports in the areas of social-emotional, behavior and academics to ensure that every learner can be successful. Through practices such as Professional Learning Communities and intervention, school staffs work collaboratively to develop a personal understanding of the needs of each student. We were able to utilize ESSR funds to staff each school with a counselor.”
Keller said Laguna Beach Unified School District utilizes universal social-emotional health screenings twice a year for students in grades K through 12 to support the potential identification of students with new or emerging mental health needs.
“In addition, it provides an additional connection point between students and school counseling staff,” said Keller. “Lastly, our school district and many districts across Orange County have invested heavily in school-based mental health staff, increasing qualified staff members from TK through 12th grade. In LBUSD, we have added school counseling, social work staff, administrative leadership in school-based mental health and a coordinator of family engagement to increase access to mental health supports and community-based resources.”
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- Schools and Families Reflect on Post-Pandemic Campuses
What Parents Can Do
Educators say that the best tools for dealing with mental stress in children involve creating an open dialogue where your child feels safe to discuss his or her issues.
“Listen. Support. Don’t judge. It may be scary for a parent to face a mental health issue with their child, but there is an opportunity to come together as a family to prevent further crisis, show love and start to heal,” said Thomas.
Jackson said, “Spend time with them, listen to and hear them and most importantly, let them know they are loved and understood. It is also important for parents to recognize when they need to seek outside help to support them in guiding their child back to a balanced life.”
When parents need some extra support, include your child’s school in the process as they have trained staff members and counselors available.
“Reach out to teachers, counselors, principals, parents, coaches — any trusted adult,” said Burris. “Be sure to connect with your school’s administrators and counselors. They can help provide resources both inside and outside of the district.”
Some schools will also coordinate with medical experts to help.
“SMCHS is proud to collaborate with CHOC Children’s to keep us up-to-date on local and national adolescent trends. Through our partnership with CHOC, we offer a CHOC resource specialist line for parents seeking qualified and reputable professional mental health resources for their children,” Cleary said.