Utah Psychologists: Mental Health is an Issue of Concern for Utah Students | News, Sports, Jobs

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Sandra Young arrives at Whittier Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, August 24, 2021 with her daughters Baylin, 5, and Paytin, 2.

It was a meme before memes even existed. Many of us can no doubt remember the recurring scene from Peanuts cartoons and comics where Lucy sits nonchalantly in a handcrafted wooden booth under a sign offering “Psychiatric Help,” with a lower sign reading, “The Doctor.” is there”.

I can’t help but juxtapose this comically carefree scene with the current climate of ongoing pandemic uncertainty, divisive political rhetoric, climate change, and countless nationwide incidents of school violence. Given the inadequate ratio of school psychologists to students here in Utah, it’s sometimes hard not to feel that the sign most students, parents, and teachers picture in their minds today is “The doctor’s overbooked.”

It is often easy to overlook or downplay mental health issues, both in our own children and in our schools. But according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in six school-age children suffers from a mental disorder each year. When schools have a full-time school psychologist on site, they have immediate support for all mental health issues, crises and more. If this is not the case, students will not receive the support and help they need.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500-700 students. In Utah, however, the number is closer to one school psychologist for every 2,300 students. It’s easy for many in need of help to accidentally slip through the grid.

On December 21, with a view to students returning to school after the holidays, the US surgeon general issued an advisory emphasizing the urgent need to address the adolescent mental health crisis. Yes, mental health challenges in adolescents are real and widespread.

How can I help my child?

Where can help start? For starters, at home. Students already face normal anxiety when returning to school after a break, and concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and its variants only add to that natural uncertainty. But much of that anxiety can be alleviated at home by parents’ own reactions to things happening in the world around them.

There are four key ways parents can help their children transition back to school after a break:

  • Make an effort to listen to your child. Spend quality time with them and ask open-ended questions about their feelings about school, their friends, etc.
  • Model effective coping strategies yourself. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Don’t say anything. What you are stands over you for a while and thunders so that I can’t hear what you say against it.” Children learn just as much by observing how their parents react to things as by anything else. For example, can we blame a third grader for overreacting when someone slips in front of him at lunchtime after seeing a parent lose his lunch because another driver cut him off at the school delivery line that morning?
  • Be alert to changes in your child’s behavior, especially signs of regression or withdrawal. These are often subtle signals that something is wrong.
  • Make time every day to check in with your child. life happens. But in the swirling cacophony of demands on your time, it’s important to make time to connect with your children in some way every day. This helps create a basis of trust and the expectation of open communication.

How do I deal with trauma?

For children who have experienced trauma, the NASP suggests adults take the following steps to restore safety and stability:

  • Stick to your usual routines.
  • Watch for changes in behavior.
  • Allow children to tell the story of the trauma they experienced as they see it so they can begin to let go of their emotions and understand what happened.
  • Respond calmly and compassionately, but without showing shock or judgment.
  • Reassure the children that the adults in their lives are working to protect them.
  • Set limits and boundaries with consistency and patience.
  • Keep reminding her how much you care about her.
  • Give them choices to regain a sense of control.
  • Encourage and support them.
  • Anticipate challenging times or situations that could be reminders of the event and offer additional support.
  • Provide ways for children who are acting out to redirect their energy in helpful ways, such as giving them additional responsibilities or leadership roles.

What is the role of school psychologists?

In November, the Utah Association of School Psychologists joined NASP to champion the Let’s Get in GEAR theme, based on the acronym Grow, Engage, Advocate and Rise. The acronym highlights how school psychologists empower children and youth to grow in areas such as coping skills, social skills, empathy and compassion for others, as well as develop problem-solving, goal setting and academic skills.

As President of the Utah Association of School Psychologists, advocacy and engagement are critical to my role. In my years as a school psychologist, I have observed that many parents, teachers, administrators, school board members and legislators do not understand the difference between school psychologists and other school professionals such as school counselors and school social workers. And that leads them to underestimate our importance.

While our roles share similarities, School Psychologists are highly trained in both Education and Psychology, meaning we are uniquely qualified to support students academically, socially, behaviorally and emotionally. The pandemic has only increased the need for mental health support in school settings, and school psychologists are ready and willing to support them.

We encourage all parents to contact their local school boards and districts to inquire about the mental health support available to students. Then encourage the district to use a model where a school psychologist is an active member of one or two schools, supporting the needs of all students, rather than being spread across multiple schools.

As we think back to other legendary Lucy moments in Peanuts, we stop stealing the proverbial soccer ball from our youth as they try to shed habits that lead to added anxiety and stress during these trying times.

Bethanie Monsen-Ford, President of the Utah Association of School Psychologists, is a board-certified school psychologist. She trained as a school counselor and school psychologist at Utah State University, where she earned her master’s and educational specialist degrees. For more information on UASP, see uasponline.org.

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