Schools are overwhelmed by student mental health. Can Congress help?

A high school graduate’s appeal for schools to do more for the mental well-being of students was strong enough to move a US senator to tears.

The show of emotion took place during Claire Rhyneer’s testimony at a US Senate hearing to mental disorders and substance abuse. She has worked at the National Alliance on Mental Illness as an advocate on issues affecting young people.

Rhyneer, who graduated last spring, opened up about her own struggles and urged schools to adopt curricula that include mental health material. This, Rhyneer told senators, would make it easier for students to identify possible symptoms and seek help, and make them less likely to try searching online for answers themselves.

“I represent the tip of the iceberg,” Rhyneer said. “I am more than an anecdote.”

Towards the end of his speaking time in the hearing, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., thanked Rhyneer for her work and said his own family had been struck by suicide.

At this point, Cassidy choked, apologized for getting emotional, and cut off his microphone.

A worrying picture of child and adolescent mental health

During the hearing, senators and experts discussed how schools can do more to support students’ mental health and troubling trends in child welfare.

Several senators expressed grave concern about the impact of COVID-19 on child welfare. These fears were confirmed by medical professionals, who told the panel a sharp increase in reports of children with mental health problems.

But they also said that with new resources, staff, guidance from their communities and educational materials for students, schools can take a big step forward when it comes to helping their students.

Educators, researchers, and others are still grappling with all of the short- and long-term implications of the pandemic. However, many working in schools have said nearly two years of COVID shutdowns and restrictions have impacted students’ mental health and will continue to do so for years to come.

A recent study of children in several countries found that between 18 and 60 percent of the students suffered from severe distress and in particular from symptoms of anxiety and depression. While the study found no significant association between school closures and suicide among young people early in the pandemic, the study found other worrying findings about a decrease in referrals to child protection services and children’s screen time.

And many teachers are simultaneously going through their own struggles with exploding stress.

Felecia Evans, a school principal in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, for example, told Education Week last year that she works with her school’s psychologist, counselor and other staff to identify at-risk students and see what can be done to manage their anxiety to alleviate pre-pandemic-driven challenges has “kinda changed the nature of my work”.

There is also growing concern that the pandemic is behind a potential spike in student misconduct– including violence – this school year, although it is unclear to what extent this opinion is ultimately supported by data.

Mental health professionals can be important partners for schools

Both lawmakers and Witnesses debated alarming statistics about children’s mental well-being.

dr Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, said that cases of self-harm and suicide in children’s hospitals increased 42 percent in the first three quarters of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.

But Prinstein also said the country’s mental health professionals can provide crucial support and information to educators, even if they don’t work full-time in schools. It’s important to help teachers and administrators connect with students “before they reach a moment of trauma,” he said.

“The school staff is currently overwhelmed,” said Prinstein. “Please think about how psychologists and other service providers can help teach schools what is needed. … We have many prevention programs that are ready to be deployed.”

He also expressed support for the Student Psychiatric Services Act, which was introduced in Congress last year and would authorize grants to support school-based mental health services such as screening and treatment. (Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, D-Calif., and Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn.)

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., echoed that argument and said more should be done to ensure people who work directly with children, including adults in schools, get more education about mental health and children, given the all the money that is already being spent on training professionals such as teachers and pediatricians.

Citing recent work by David Leonhardt in The New York Times on the harm done to children by pandemic policy decisionsSen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked witnesses about comparing the negative effects of COVID-19 itself to the consequences of COVID-19 restrictions, including school closures, on children.

Prinstein responded that a variety of reasons were responsible for the increasing mental health problems faced by children, from delays in receiving special education to a divisive political culture.

“They have tremendous disruptions in their rules and routines,” he said. “You see polarization among leaders.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who served as the senior member for the hearing, said she’s seen evidence of a disturbing divide separating young people struggling with suicidal thoughts and despair and adults who are just reluctant to hear about it and respond to such challenges.

“They were afraid that if they talked about it, it might be encouraged,” Murkowski said.

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