As the pandemic continues to disrupt their lives, Maine schoolchildren are showing signs of depression and anxiety similar to what is seen in the aftermath of a large-scale disaster, according to school-based mental health workers statewide.

And the emotional effects are making it more difficult for them to learn and interact with their peers, the counselors said.

Ninety percent of the nearly 400 school mental health professionals who responded to a survey by the Maine Department of Education reported an increase in symptoms of both depression and anxiety, while nearly half of the students they work with are struggling academically. The survey was conducted over the summer and results were presented to Maine lawmakers last week.

Federal officials also have flagged the pandemic’s rising toll on student mental health.

On Tuesday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory, noting the “devastating” impacts the pandemic is having on students and families. It follows a similar warning issued by the U.S. Department of Education about the importance of meeting students’ social and emotional needs, saying “the mental health crisis for children and youth in the United States has reached a critical point.”

Kelly Weaver, the chair of the Maine School Counselors Association, said pandemic-induced anxiety can manifest itself in student misbehavior, especially among elementary students, from not following classroom rules to more conflicts between students.

“Sometimes our young students don’t have the language they need to explain what the problem is,” said Weaver, a school counselor at the George B. Weatherbee School in Hampden. “It can be hard to put big words to those big feelings, especially when you’re little.”

Bonnie Robbins, a school counselor in Poland, said the survey highlights the need to invest more resources in school counselors and mental health professionals to meet the social and emotional well-being of students, which is foundational to learning.

“We’re trying to get students ready academically and we’re focusing on that,” Robbins said, “but if they’re not having their social and emotional needs met, then academic achievement is going to be hard to come by.”

At the national level, Murthy noted that feelings of sadness or hopelessness were already rising significantly in 2019, before the pandemic, especially among girls. Now, he said, the negative influences of technology and social media, including bullying and reinforcing negative self-esteem, have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has brought “unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities.”

“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place,” Murthy wrote. “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable and often preventable.”

SIMILAR TO STRESS OF DISASTER

The findings in Maine’s survey are consistent with research on the mental health impacts of large-scale disasters, especially among vulnerable student populations, according to Bear Shea, a mental health and school counselor specialist at the Maine Department of Education.

Shea said that the survey does not gauge the severity of these symptoms, only whether there is an increase. Interviews were not conducted with students or families. But school mental health workers reported more instances of student irritability, more “edgy conflicts” among peers and other student behavior-elated issues, he said.

The survey suggests that the loss of positive relationships and connections to adults, peers and community services brought on by the pandemic could be driving the mental health challenges. And it’s exacerbated by the disruptions in daily routines, whether it’s because of quarantines or abrupt changes from in-person to remote learning, and back.

“There are a lot of students that have to make very quick pivots if they are quarantined,” Weaver said. “That speaks to family stress, too. When families have to make changes to accommodate a quarantined child, then family stress goes up and everyone feels the result of family stress.”

The pandemic also is having a cascading effect by adding to economic struggles facing some families. The survey indicated that the frequency of housing insecurity among students increased by nearly 55 percent and food insecurity increased by nearly 61 percent.

And this week, nonprofits that provide emergency shelter for teenagers reported unusually high numbers of people in need of a place to stay. The increases are seen as another sign of rising stress and conflicts within families as the pandemic continues.

Kellie Hall, a 38-year-old wellness coach and personal trainer, said the pandemic’s impact on her three kids has been front of mind.

Her family returned to Yarmouth in March 2020, the onset of the pandemic in Maine, after spending three years in Texas. Her kids were excited to attend school, but instead the schools shifted to remote learning. And the last 21 months have been anything but predictable.

“It was especially hard for my kids,” Hall said. “We structure our kids from such a young age with preschool and sports. To pull them away from all of that has been devastating.”

SEEKING STRUCTURE, SUPPORT

Hall said she has been “super proactive” about reaching out to teachers. She enrolled her daughter, who is in elementary school, in gymnastics so she could form connections with her peers. And she made arrangements for her 12-year-old son, who is now in the seventh grade, to begin seeing a school counselor.

She said middle school is challenging time socially for most children, even in the best of times.

“It made an awkward time all the more challenging because they know they’re not little kids anymore but they’re not big kids yet,” she said.

Hall said that teachers and especially school counselors are stretched thin, and she says school districts should be devoting more resources to students’ social and emotional well-being.

“(Parents) shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help,” she said.

The survey highlights the importance of building safe and supportive relationships between students and staff, and in many cases, devoting additional resources to bring social workers and other clinical interventions into the school, said Shea, the Department of Education specialist.

The DOE reached out to 1,656 school staff members who had mental health expertise and regular interactions with students. Twenty-four percent, or 399 individuals responded to the survey, which was open from May 21 to June 4 and focused on the 2020-2021 school year. Respondents came from all 16 counties and grade levels.

Ninety percent of the respondents reported an increase in the number of students struggling with anxiety and 89 percent reported an increase in depression.

Respondents reported that 49 percent of the students they work with are having more difficulty managing their mental health, 45 percent had more difficulty managing their academics and 47 percent had difficulty forming positive relationships with their peers.

INCREASED NEED FOR SUPPORT

The survey found that “significant majorities” of school staff identified a need for increased support for students who are living with trauma,  are from low-income families or qualify for special education services. More than half of respondents indicated an increased need for support for students who are in rural areas, have disabilities, are homeless or housing insecure, or are LGBTQA+.

Jeffrey Porter, superintendent of MSAD 51, which serves Cumberland and North Yarmouth, acknowledged the pandemic’s toll on the mental health of students and teachers in a message to parents last week.

He said the number referrals in the district relating to “worrisome behaviors” this fall had surpassed the number in a typical year.

“As educators, we have seen the effects of the pandemic on our students, whether it is relearning social structures, continuous reminders about basic school rules, or stopping to reteach foundational skills that may have been missed or forgotten along the way,” he said.

Porter also said the emotional impact on adults filters down to the children. “It is also easy for many of us to despair as to what has been lost over the last 21 months and how things will never really be the same again. Often this perceived ‘loss’ is projected onto our kids.”

On Wednesday, Porter sent another alert to parents, disclosing that some of that “worrisome behavior” included three incidents in the last week in which a student either brought a weapon to school or threatened to do so. He noted that other students promptly reported the incidents to staff. He followed up on Thursday, saying that no guns were involved.

Robbins, a school counselor at the Bruce Whittier Middle School in Poland, said she is seeing a “huge uptick” of anxiety in students, leading to emotional outbursts among elementary school students and substance use, including among middle school students.

Robbins said the disruptions have made it more difficult to teach kids about staying safe online by not communicating with strangers or participating in social media challenges that lead to destruction of school property. And everyone, including teachers and other staff, is exhausted by returning to school full time, she said.

Robbins said some students have told her that they don’t feel like they’re maturing.

“I feel like they’re all stuck two years behind,” she said.

CHALLENGES AT HOME

She also is seeing a rise students talking about challenges at home.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s happening at home,” she said. “I see a lot of that right now.”

The report offers a list of resources for counselors and parents to help deal with the mental health impacts. School-based interventions emphasize a continued focus on social and emotional aspects of learning, which include building trusted relationships with students and staff and having enough counselors on staff to be proactive in teaching students and staff how to recognize feelings of anxiety and depression and how to cope with them before it reaches a crisis level.

Weaver, of the Maine School Counselors Association, said the survey validates the importance of the work that school counselors have been doing during the pandemic. She said parents can play an active role by communicating openly with school counselors and mental health workers.

“When families communicate concerns and changes at home with schools, it helps schools to be more well-equipped to meet student needs,” she said. “All in all, when stakeholders create a sense of belonging and community in our schools, then our students will be well cared for, feel seen and heard, and be able to learn and gain the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century.”

But she’s also concerned about a longstanding shortage in finding enough certified counselors for the schools seeking them.

“We don’t have enough people who are school counselors,” she said.


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