As children and teens begin returning to Mesa classrooms, teachers and administrators aren’t just focused on addressing “learning loss” among many students during months of online instruction.
They also are focusing on the impact of campus closures and pandemic-related stress on students’ mental and emotional well-being.
While they are addressing academics as well as numerous new protocols aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, schools also have developed plans to address the fallout from months of uncertainty, isolation and stress.
Experts say that fallout has triggered wide range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, drug overdoses and suicide ideation and attempts. Suicide is already the leading cause of death among children 11-14 years old, Gov. Doug Ducey noted two weeks ago.
Katey McPherson, an East Valley education consultant and suicide prevention advocate, estimates that there have been at least six suicides of students between the ages of 12 and 18 that have occurred since campuses were closed in mid-March.
She said the East Valley could lose a child to suicide every six to eight weeks.
But, she added, “The awareness has grown and people are talking about mental health. We have made great strides.”
“I’m excited for my own children to get back to school, but it will probably take 90 to 120 days for them to settle in," said McPherson, a former assistant principal at a Gilbert junior high school. “We all want to think home is a safe place, but for many children, it’s not."
Schools also are making progress on dealing with mental health issues among students.
The state Department of Education has developed competencies that teachers and administrators are learning in order to recognize and help troubled youngsters.
Some districts hired more counselors and social workers after the Ducey administration set aside $20 million for additional grants to pay for them, although the demand far exceeded available dollars.
Two new state laws also are taking effect at the same time campuses are reopening.
Teachers, administrators and other school employees who regularly come in contact with students in grades 6-12 must receive mandatory training in recognizing and responding to the warning signs of suicide.
That law is dubbed the Mitch Warnock Act, named in honor of a Tempe teen who was lost to suicide in 2016.
Also taking effect is Jake’s Law, which expands the availability of behavioral health assistance for children in school and will eventually lead to the creation of a panel that will investigate the root causes of teen suicides.
Denise Denslow of Gilbert – who started the JEM Foundation with her husband Ben and spearheaded a grassroots movement to get Lake’s Law passed after her teenage son’s death by suicide – said the $8 million Behavioral Health Services Fund will help students get emotional help at school more readily.
She said the investigative panel has been delayed and it will take a year to implement new regulations that require insurance companies to cover mental health needs the same they cover physical health treatment.
Still, the pandemic has had a far-reach impact on children and teens.
“They’re really struggling," Denslow said. “It’s the social isolation, the uncertainty and the fear."
Teen Lifeline reported a 46 percent increase in calls and texts during June and July from stressed teens. Teens contemplating suicide or feel the need for help can call the hotline 24/7 for supportive services.
Mesa-based Community Bridges, which provides services to address addiction and behavioral health issues, also experienced an increase in referrals for East Valley youngsters and teens.
“I would say that across the board, behavioral health is pretty busy," said Natalia Chimbo Andrade, director of community education and outreach for Community Bridges.
“We have seen an increase in referrals for suicidal ideation, anxiety and depression," she said. “What is going on with the pandemic is a contributing factor in depression and anxiety in teenagers."
A child psychiatrist also said she
has seen an unusual increase in suicide attempts.
“We’ve definitely seen more suicide attempts than generally what I have seen during my career," said Dr. Adeola Adelayo, of Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry.
“It pushes them over," she said as teens struggle with social isolation and other interruptions in the normal school year.
“The ones who are prone to abusing substances, we have seen more overdoses," Adelayo said.
While Adelayo believes that going back to school may generally improve the mental state of many children and teens, she said the benefits must be weighed against the risks of contracting the virus.
“I’m definitely hopeful," she said. “Kids are going back to normalcy. It sends the message that things are getting better."
The return to classrooms “gives some kind of structure. Every human being needs structure, especially kids," Adelayo said.
She said teens in particular need space to grow up and develop their identity.
“That’s where they get their socialization from, being out of the home, being able to make friends," Adelayo said.
“They need some space to figure out their own morals, their own values," or whether they continue on the same path imparted by their parents. “They are trying to figure out who they are."
During the pandemic, Adelayo said she noticed that stressed-out parents trying to cope with a job loss, financial stresses or sickness and death within a family, unwittingly influence the children’s emotional and mental state.
Often a child’s mental state would improve after therapy sessions involving the child and a parent, she said.
Nikki Koontz, clinical director of Teen Lifeline, said teens have been struggling with social isolation caused by the pandemic but they also are concerned about becoming carriers for COVID and infecting their families if they return to school.
“Going back to school is politicized. Many kids feel their opinion doesn’t matter," Koontz said. “They are struggling with there being no control over anything."
She said the pandemic has created an opportunity for parents to have the sort of deep conversations that can lead to stronger emotional connections.
At the same time, however, the pandemic’s effect have also given rise to more family conflicts.
The usual warnings about the dangers of social media have been pushed aside a bit during COVID, Koontz said.
“The lack of connection with their peers can make them feel very lonely," she said.
Even though teens have spent more time with their families, “there still can be a sense of loneliness. They don’t feel people understand."
“I can’t imagine how things would be without technology. That’s how we are all staying connected," Koontz said. “One of the biggest protective factors is a sense of connection."
A return to school may help many teens emotionally, Koontz said, because “a lot of their social and emotional growth comes from their associations with friends and peers."
Koontz said Teen Lifeline has been helping school districts prepare for the return of their students, running training sessions on digital platforms throughout the summer for employees to spot the warning signs of teen suicide, with as many as 25-30 employees attending.
Adelayo said it only stands to reason that more emotional problems among children will be spotted when they return to school.
“Anytime you have more oversight, you will be able to see better. You have more people keeping an eye on you," she said. “Your parents may be working two or three jobs."