As students begin returning to the classroom as the pandemic eases, schools are bracing for an onslaught of serious mental health conditions that, for some students, may take years to overcome.

In the year that campuses were closed due to COVID-19, students experienced waves of loneliness, fear, upheaval and grief. Some lost loved ones, others saw their parents lose their jobs and their families sink into poverty. Nearly all experienced a degree of depression from being apart from their friends and missing important milestones like proms, graduations and being on campus as college freshmen. Even students who thrived with distance learning endured periods of frustration and sadness.

But amid the gloom, some advocates foresee schools and colleges adopting permanent changes in the way they address students’ mental health needs, leading to long-term improvements in campus climate and students’ overall well-being.

“I think the universal consensus now is that children, especially Black and brown children, have been suffering greatly during the pandemic, and our system of delivering services is broken. Everyone knows we need to make changes,” said Alex Briscoe, principal of California Children’s Trust. “Will this be a game changer? Maybe. Is it important that we do it? Hell yes.”

Children’s visits to mental health professionals jumped dramatically in the past year. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 4 young adults say they’ve considered suicide because of the pandemic. Many students say they feel isolated and disengaged from school, their friends and life in general, according to a July report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Strategies for coping

Amy Cranston, executive director of the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for California, said there’s plenty schools can do to help students understand and process their emotions once they return to campus. But it won’t be easy.

“Everyone thinks we’re going back to ‘normal,’ but the problem is that there is no ‘normal.’ No one is sure what to expect,” Cranston said. “I think it’s going to be a tough road for everyone — parents and teachers, too.”

Cranston and Danielle Matthew, a licensed marriage and family therapist who’s on the steering committee for the alliance, suggested teachers do daily “check-ins” with students where they can talk about their feelings and listen to their classmates, as a way to gain empathy and build communication skills after a year of limited social contact.

Plenty of physical activity and fun projects should also be available, they said. Testing and rigorous academics can wait at least a week or two as students adjust to school again.

In addition, teachers should be trained to recognize signs of more serious mental health conditions, such as depression, and know when to refer students to counselors. Students should all know how to find the school counselors themselves, as well, they said.

“In a lot of ways, these social-emotional skills are more important than algebra,” Matthew said. “Most people don’t use algebra after high school, but you’ll use SEL skills your entire life. That’s what will get you through events like this.”

Their efforts will get a boost from new funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, which will send $15.3 billion to California districts with broad discretion to spend the funds as needed, including for mental health services. Colleges and universities will receive an additional $5 billion.

Amid the attention to students’ well-being, teachers’ mental health should not be overlooked, said Dr. Soundhari Balaguru, a clinical psychologist in the Bay Area who consults with schools about social-emotional learning. Teachers have not only experienced their own personal hardships during the pandemic, but lately they’ve found themselves at odds with parents over school reopening plans.

“It can be very tense,” she said. “This is a crisis that’s going to be ongoing, and we need to give teachers time to take care of themselves on a daily basis. … Teachers are really the emotional barometer of the classroom, and if they’re dysregulated, impatient, or even simply grumpy every day, that impacts every student in their class.”

Extra support on college campuses

Students and faculty at the college level have also been affected by anxiety, depression and stress related to the pandemic.

For Taylor Helmes, a senior at Cal State Dominguez Hills, being confined to her Long Beach apartment has been especially difficult. Before the pandemic, she enjoyed being able to spontaneously decide to go on trips or surprise her friends, like when she showed up at a friend’s house with wine and chocolate after a breakup.

“Spontaneity is almost nonexistent for me and my friends these days,” she said. “That lack of social interaction is just hard.”

What began last year as a quick switch from in-person to online and telephone counseling has become a mainstay of college life, with officials expecting a continuation of some form of online mental health services. Some students like the privacy and ease of seeing a counselor online rather than in person.

At Humboldt State, counselors and other staff have been trying to “get creative” to respond to isolation and loneliness among students, said Elizabeth McCallion, outreach coordinator for the counseling center at that campus. They’ve set up virtual workshops for students to meet each other online and have organized walks in the forests surrounding the campus.

As more students return to campus this fall for in-person classes, McCallion is expecting that they may also need additional support with social and communication skills after more than a year of taking classes from home.

“College is such an important time for developing those interpersonal skills. I could see us really focusing on working with students to decrease social anxiety and get them connected with each other,” she said.

College faculty and staff also face the stress of working from home while caring for their own children and family members. CSU Channel Islands is piloting a wellness and self-care program to help staff, and eventually faculty, find balance.

Campuses across the state could also soon get more resources from the state to support students and their mental health. Recently introduced legislation, AB 940, would direct an unspecified amount of money each year to California State University, the University of California and the state’s 116 community colleges to expand mental health services across their systems.

‘It will take time’

Meanwhile, some K-12 districts are already taking steps to address student mental health needs. At ABC Unified in Cerritos in Los Angeles County, social-emotional learning activities will “saturate everything we do for the first couple of weeks,” said Tina Porter, a licensed clinical social worker who heads the district’s social work department.

The district already has social workers stationed at all 33 schools in the district, plus an additional 19 college interns available to help, as well as counselors, nurses and school psychologists. Teachers have also been trained in social-emotional learning techniques and how to recognize signs of trauma among students.

But ultimately, it will be impossible to know the extent of students’ mental health needs until they’re actually back in the classroom, Porter said.

“Every single family in our district has been impacted by the pandemic, but they don’t always share with us what’s happening,” Porter said. “We won’t know right away what’s required of us. It will take time.”

Some districts not only beefed up their counseling staffs, but also contracted with local nonprofits to provide extra services. In anticipation of students’ increased mental health needs as they return to school, Manteca Unified in the San Joaquin Valley expanded its contract with Valley Community Counseling Services to provide therapists at each of the district’s 29 campuses. The district also contracted with an organization called Sports for Learning, which incorporates social-emotional learning into physical education curriculum.

Paying for these services may get a little easier thanks to $750 million set aside for student mental health services in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2021-22 budget, said Briscoe, of California Children’s Trust. The money is divided between schools, county mental health agencies and managed care organizations that provide benefits to people enrolled in Medi-Cal.

Other recent changes will also help students get mental health services. Students will no longer be required to be enrolled in special education to qualify for psychological therapy services, and managed care plans are now required to include family therapy benefits.

Ideally, schools could use their state grant money to open wellness centers on campus, set up partnerships with outside agencies that provide mental health services, train teachers and set up peer counseling programs — all of which would provide long-term mental health benefits to students, Briscoe said.

“We have an opportunity to do something that can really benefit children’s lives, especially those who are most vulnerable,” he said. “Basically, children are suffering, and we’ve learned that schools are the right place to address it.”

Changes can’t come fast enough for parents like Jennafer Carson, a teacher and mother of three teenagers on the Peninsula. Her youngest daughter often seems withdrawn and disconnected, and her students seem disengaged both academically and socially.

More counselors on campus will help, but so will clubs, sports, theater, music, art — all the activities that bring students a sense of fun and belonging, she said.

“My honest assessment is that we don’t yet know the emotional damage this has done to kids. They’ve lost the social connections that are so important for their development,” Carson said. “It feels like we’re in a very precarious position right now, and it can’t go on.”

* EdSource staffers Michael Burke, Ashley Smith and Larry Gordon contributed to this report.

* Story originally published by EdSource.