When there was no distinction between home and school while classes were virtual during the pandemic, Brittyn Benjamin-Kelley felt like her life was “going nowhere.”
“Part of it was a process of self-discovery because I had to figure out what I love to do on my own,” said Benjamin-Kelley, a senior at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. “But it was still a tough journey to go through on my own.”
Edi Wolde of Aurora, Colorado, described a similar feeling.
“It’s not fun to be alone with your thoughts, especially if they’re negative,” she said.
They were among several college students from across the United States who reflected on their experiences over the past two years during a mental health discussion hosted Wednesday by Chalkbeat and College Track, a nonprofit aimed at helping students to attain and complete their university studies.
The students shared familiar concerns, explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of isolation, loss of structure and additional mental health burdens. But it was also a time of personal growth, some said — a testament to the resilience required of young people during the pandemic.
Xitlali Curincita, a student from the San Francisco Bay Area, set “small goals” like attending class once a day, and eventually started her own club that served as a discussion space for students. students. “I had the opportunity to make a statement and say ‘I support you,'” she said.
When students struggled, schools did not always have the resources to support them. Although schools across the country have added counselors, social workers and teacher training – thanks in part to federal COVID relief funding – many have faced staffing shortages and student needs that exceed the ability of educators to help effectively.
The pandemic has also followed years of alarming increases in rates of suicide and depression among young people. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. noted Mitch Prinstein, scientific director of the American Psychological Association, who attended the event alongside other mental health experts.
“I don’t know why it hasn’t gotten more attention before. But I really wish that was the case,” Prinstein said. “Like so many things, the pandemic really exposed a problem that had been there for a long time and made us see everything in a very different and more disturbing way.”
COVID has also exposed longstanding racial and age-based inequalities in access to mental health services, said Jessica Jackson of the AAKOMA Project, a nonprofit focused on meeting health needs. mentality of young people of color. And when families realize they need help, they often encounter community mental health systems that are not flexible, accessible, affordable, or staffed to serve children in crisis.
“When I was working in impatient units, parents don’t know you have to go to a children’s hospital most of the time” to get intensive services, she says. “If you go to your regular emergency room, everyone in the inpatient unit is like, what do we do with this 15-year-old?”
Finding mental health support on an ongoing basis is an especially acute challenge for families of color, she said. In addition to facing higher rates of COVID, they have experienced the impact of racist violence in their communities.
“Not only am I going through the health issue and the grief, but now I’m also going through, I don’t know what people think of who I am as I identify myself,” she explained. “And then you have to find a therapist who can really work with all of those things.”
It’s not that schools and outside groups don’t want to help, said Le’Yondo Dunn, principal of Mastery Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia.
“What we find when we want to step in and get a young person to access support is that the system is incredibly overloaded,” Dunn said. Dunn’s school has six social workers, more than most schools. Yet they feel tense.
“Our social workers spend 80, 90 percent of their days answering and sorting,” he said. “What I wish our social workers had the ability to do is do some of the proactive work.”
Through a program called Rebound, her school provides additional therapy and violence mediation to a fraction of her students. Every student could use something like this, he said, “but it takes resources, and it also takes the right people.”
Students at the event – the latest in a four-part Chalkbeat series – had their own suggestions for how schools could help.
Curincita said she would like to see schools host conversations about vulnerability, providing a space to be vulnerable and talk about what the concept means.
“For me, vulnerability is very difficult to address,” she said. “But in most cases, I feel like you have to be vulnerable to feel fully heard and understood.”
Another one the student wanted people not always to try to solve their problems for them, but rather to be a listening ear. Others have suggested schools add “mental health breaks” or rest time. Lisbeth Martinez of Jordan Senior High in Los Angeles said she would like schools to also offer classes on navigating conversations with adults about emotions.
Laura Clary from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shared research suggesting these conversations can make a difference. Her study of a mental health program in Baltimore showed that students actively apply the emotional management skills they learn.
“It’s heartwarming and depressing at the same time,” she said. “It’s encouraging because we can see that it could make a difference. But schools need resources to be able to do these things.
Watch the full conversation here.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational changes in public schools.
More reading: Click here for last year’s award-winning EdNews series on young people’s access to mental health services in Idaho schools, funded by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.
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