If mental & behavioral health was a challenge for schools before, the going’s about to get tougher. Here’s what you can do.

Everyone’s talking about how to reopen schools, and what it’s going to take to get students learning again. But even if we can get kids back into classrooms, or plugged into school from home, are students and teachers expected to be in the right headspace to learn and teach?

Pre-pandemic, researchers estimated as many 60 percent of students with a mental health problem such as stress, anxiety, or depression went without treatment. 

Then came the shutdown, and the protests, and all the social media commentary. As schools closed their doors, students and teachers saw nearly every aspect of their daily lives turned upside down. Many sought to find their voice, and their footing, while attempting to make sense of the chaos.

Their efforts have been nothing short of remarkable. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. 

“There is little doubt that there will be substantial increases in mental- and behavioral-health problems for students and adults when schools reopen their physical buildings,” writes Kathleen Minke, executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists, in Education Week. 

Fewer than a quarter of K-12 leaders — and only 5 percent of urban superintendents — say they’ve been able to meet students’ mental health needs to the same degree as before the pandemic.

This isn’t something that is going to get better soon, says Michael Sherman, Ph.D., and a certified school psychologist. “There's going to be a huge adjustment period.”

This goes deeper than school.

It’s no secret that students who struggle with mental health struggle in the classroom. Unfortunately, that’s far from a worst-case scenario for most families.

For a lot of kids, mental health struggles lead to even bigger problems at home.  

In 2017, as many as 17 percent of high school students thought about taking their own life, according to federal data — and 12 out of every 100,000 youth ages 15 to 19 actually did so.

Now, experts fear that the pandemic is going to make those feelings worse.

A recent survey of 3,300 teenagers conducted by the America's Promise Alliance, revealed that more than half of teenagers are more worried than usual about their own health and that of their family, 40 percent said they’re concerned about their family’s financial standing, 39 percent said they’re worried about their education, and 30 percent said they’re worried about basic needs like food, medicine, and safety.

Schools ARE treatment centers.

Schools aren’t mental health facilities. But that hardly matters now. 

Of the students who do receive treatment, nearly two-thirds do so at school and not from a private mental health professional, NASP says. Research suggests that students are more likely to seek counseling when those services are available from their school.

The problem? Most schools either don’t have, or can’t find, enough certified psychologists to meet that need, says Sherman — and it’s not even close.

On average, Education Week reports, U.S. schools provide one psychologist for every 1,700 students, a far cry from the one psychologist for every 500 to 700 students recommended by NASP.

“Most of the people who are doing mental health are school guidance counselors who, really, in a lot of districts are not trained mental health professionals, but career counselors,” says Sherman. “So there's a huge need, that's not being filled.”

If the old way didn’t work, it definitely won’t now.
It’s time for a new approach.

Dr. Sherman and other school psychologists say one way to help counseling departments meet the demand for specialized mental health training and care is through the addition of teletherapy.

Rather than hire in-house psychologists, teletherapy works by connecting students with certified therapists virtually, when they need them, either using Zoom, or some other online tool.

Educators, and even many psychologists, used to question whether teletherapy could match in-person therapy on critical benefits like quality of care and privacy. But, as more people get used to learning and working from home, experts say that distance is closing.

“Prior to COVID-19, teletherapy services weren’t seen as viable in many places,” Michele Wiley, a pediatric physical therapist and assistant professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia told Education Week. “There was a limited view of how this could take place effectively.” 

Dr. Sherman says an experienced partner like TeleTeachers can help students and staff, by getting creative and by bringing in specialized counseling and resources previously unavailable to most schools. 

TeleTeachers certified therapists work as an extension of a school district’s professional team, helping schools provide critical services to anyone who needs them.

Students’ mental and behavioral health has always been important, both personally and academically, but the pandemic has raised the stakes. The question now is: are your schools ready to raise the bar?

If you’re thinking about how to meet the rising need for mental and behavioral health services this year, we’d love to share what we’ve learned in working with school districts across the country. Contact us here.

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