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Why Is Mental Wellness Important for Students in the Age of COVID-19?

Two students holding "you matter" and "Start With Hello" signs

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Dr. Rachel Masi, our guest blogger, is the director of research for Sandy Hook Promise. As a psychologist, clinician, researcher, and mother, she brings an incredible amount of knowledge and insight to her work. 

The harsh reality of the new wave of COVID-19 mutations this fall, coupled with the anxieties of returning to school after more than a year of uncertainty and virtual learning, has had a significant impact on our youth, staff, and parents. 

Our students and teachers are returning to the classroom after unprecedented loss, disappointment, isolation, and anxiety.  Parents are managing the back-to-school routines with endless decision-making, full workloads, financial strain, and childcare in flux.

Acknowledging the Needs of Our Students, Our School Communities, and Ourselves

While eager to return and reconnect, many continue to experience stress, anxiety, loss, and fatigue that can’t simply be ignored.  

Youth have experienced increased levels of anxiety and depression, largely due to social isolation from their peers. Studies show more than 70% of teenagers are struggling with mental health. One in four have considered suicide — the second leading cause of death for adolescents. 

During the past year, we’ve developed several new programs to help address these new challenges that youth face. Prevent Suicide and other modules are now available at our Online Learning Center.

We need to acknowledge the experience and impact of the pandemic, remote learning, and social isolation to help students be ready to learn, and school communities heal.   

“My biggest worry is all of the kids who spent the entire last year online are just going to have a ton of difficulty readjusting and socializing again.”

Teresa Skripek, National Youth Advisory Board Member and speaker, Teen Perspectives On Returning To School.

Taking A New Approach

School administrators and parents must prioritize mental health needs for our students, teachers, and parents. If one is feeling unsafe, worried, or anxious, it is incredibly difficult to learn, teach, or parent.

Some experts suggest that we take the opportunity to create a more holistic system, rather than emphasize a programmatic system that focuses on academics. We discussed this issue during a recent webinar — Safety Considerations for School Communities — sponsored by the National Center for School Safety

“We can’t come back with the same mindset of ‘let’s go back to the way it was,’ and let’s be honest: the way it was, wasn’t working.”

Sean Hankins, director of the Michigan State University Adolescent Diversion Program.

Ron Avi Astor,  a professor of social welfare at the University of California, suggests that we need to create a more welcoming environment. 

“It’s about taking the time, slowing down, and coming up with procedures to create an environment where we have respect and appreciate the humanity in everyone. And that’s not something you can do in one or two sessions. It has to be your whole approach. And schools doing that have been very successful in both attendance and academics.”

Ron Avi Astor, professor of Social Welfare, University of California.

What We Can Do

We need to prioritize our kids’ social, emotional, and physical health in order to have the best school performance and experience. Providing a supportive and warm school environment creates a more positive school climate, which is proven to reduce the chance of violence to self or others. 

Here are some tips for how to connect, engage, and open up during uncertainty: 

  • Check-in with others and ASK:
    • What do you need?
    • Who can you ask for help?
  • Provide opportunities and activities for connection. 
    • Reconnect with students directly.
    • Give time to engage with old friends and new friends.
    • Remember not everyone is excited to be back. 
  • Teach skills for time management.
    • Break down tasks into smaller pieces.
    • Schedule long-term assignments.
    • Keep a planner. 
  • Make time for self-care.
    • Take time to reflect and process your own anxieties.
    • Make time to connect with friends.
    • Prioritize exercise and sleep. 

Youth who may want to harm themselves are more likely to tell a peer than an adult.

We need to acknowledge, recognize and understand the experience, isolation, and anxiety many have endured throughout this pandemic to provide compassion for ourselves and our students returning to school. Now, more than ever, we need to focus on prevention and be there for our kids. 

Take Action

Our Know The Signs programs help empower students to create a safer and more inclusive environment where all students feel welcomed. Learn more about our programs today.