We have a full-blown crisis on our hands. There’s simply no other way to state it. In addition to the physical devastation that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused over the past two years, children of all ages are suffering from a different–yet potentially just as harmful–form of devastation. A serious mental health crisis. Making the problem even worse is the fact that most public schools do not have the resources or capacity to help these kids.

Problem #1: Students Are Suffering Mentally and Emotionally

Experts warned us all at the beginning of COVID that a mental health crisis would be an inevitable byproduct of the pandemic. During the beginning stages of COVID, according to a survey conducted in 2020 by America’s Promise Alliance, more than 25% of children and young adults (ages 13 to 19) reported an increase in lost sleep because of worry, unhappiness, depression, and stress. From April to October of 2020, there was an increase of 24% (ages 5 to 11) and 31% (ages 12 to 17) in emergency room visits for mental health reasons, according to the CDC.

Things got progressively worse throughout 2020. That fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry declared a mental health emergency for children and adolescents. Unfortunately (and understandably), everyone was so preoccupied with the virus itself and the precautions we all needed to take to help mitigate its spread, that the mental aspect was, in a way, dusted under the rug. That dust has emerged and is stifling children across the globe.

“I do think there is an increase in stress and anxiety among students,” said Heather Falk, manager of advising at Bridgeway Academy. “They’ve had a hard two years with COVID restrictions and it has taken a toll on their mental health.”

“There has been a clear increase in anxiety for their present and future and an increase in stress among high school students,” stated Holly Morgan, a Bridgeway Academy academic advisor. “Some are feeling more hopeless or changing career paths because what they had wanted to do for years are now some of the most abused jobs–teaching and medicine–due to the pandemic.”

“I would say that there has definitely been an increase in stress and anxiety in students and parents the past couple years,” said Briana Temos, a fellow Bridgeway Academy academic advisor. “Families are just trying to juggle so many different things being thrown at them.”

This mental health crisis among children and teens is playing out in many different ways: through depression, panic attacks, anxiety, fights at school, bullying, behavioral outbursts, defiance of authority, increased apathy about school and grades, less empathy toward others, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts, according to teachers, administrators, education officials, and mental health experts. Sadly, depression and anxiety amongst children had been on the rise for some time, but the stress and grief caused by the pandemic have increased these numbers exponentially–especially among kids who had already been suffering from mental health issues.

It’s not all that surprising, given the circumstances we were all dealt beginning in March 2020. Consider these factors and scenarios with which children were forced to face:

  • Sick and/or dying relatives and acquaintances and the accompanying grief
  • Forced removal from their social circles due to school closures and lockdowns
  • Remote learning that put students behind in their studies, and the resulting stress of trying to catch up
  • Child abuse and neglect, and the inability to escape it
  • The financial difficulties families stemming from loss of jobs or closing of businesses and the stress that caused at home
  • Fear of illness and death due to the virus
  • Anxiety about uncertainty

Additionally, further studies have shown that “early childhood may be a particularly sensitive time in which stressful life events–such as those related to trauma or poverty–can calibrate the brain’s stress-response system, with health consequences that last into adulthood” and that childhood stress may physiologically change the structure and shape of the brain.

And it’s no secret that children who experience trauma are more susceptible to mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide, and substance abuse, as well as physical health issues like sleep difficulty, a weakened immune system, and an increased risk of illness throughout adulthood.

So, the following statistics are not entirely unexpected, especially as the pandemic became our way of life heading into 2021. The Children’s Hospital Association reported that there were more than 47,000 mental health visits to emergency departments at 38 U.S. children’s hospitals during the first three quarters of 2021–which marked a nearly 40% increase over the same period in 2020. That same Children’s Hospital Association report revealed even more staggering statistics from those 38 children’s hospital ERs during the first three quarters of 2021: The number of suicide and self-injury cases was 47% higher among 5- to 8-year-olds and 182% higher among 9- to 12-year-olds than the same period in 2016. If that doesn’t scream crisis, nothing does.

Problem #2: Schools Need More Help to Address Student Mental Health

Let this sink in for a moment: the goal of most states is to provide one counselor for every 250 students in a school. Most states, however, fail to meet that goal. It’s even worse when it comes to school psychologists. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends one psychologist per every 500 students. Only Idaho and Washington, DC, exceed that ratio. Nationally, the actual student-to-psychologist ratio was more than 1,200:1 for the 2019-2020 school year. In some states, such as Georgia, Texas, West Virginia, and Missouri, there is only one school psychologist for over 4,000 students.

According to research published by Education Week:

  • More than 5.4 million public school students (12%) attend districts with no psychologists at all.
  • Only 8% of public school districts meet the recommended ratio of school psychologists to students.
  • Nearly 500,000 students (1%) attend districts without a single school counselor.
  • Only 14% of districts meet the recommended student-to-counselor ratio.

Put plainly, schools are not equipped to provide students with the mental health and emotional help they so desperately need. The situation is even more dire in low-income areas. One reason is because students from these areas have been more likely to experience trauma and stress during the pandemic–compared to white children, American Indian/Native kids were 4.5 times as likely to have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, while Black children were 2.4 times as likely and Hispanic kids 1.8 times as likely. Plus, many of these areas lack high-speed internet connectivity, which led to students missing more school, falling further behind, and being more isolated from friends and family. Another reason? Schools in low-income neighborhoods are experiencing a severe shortage of mental health professionals to help these suffering children.

Even the full reopening of schools hasn’t solved the problem. Returning to school after months at home caused an increase in anxiety in many children, which has led to difficulties concentrating, focusing, and sitting still, as well as social problems. But what is the solution to the lack of mental health professionals in schools today?

Teachers Learning New Skills and How to Spot Warning Signs

Today, a new type of teacher training is helping instructors–whether they’re in public schools or at home like our Bridgeway Academy families–manage the shortage of counselors and psychologists…mental health education and response.

For example, a growing number of teachers are taking a course called Youth Mental Health First Aid, which teaches adults how to spot warning signs of mental health issues and substance abuse in children as well as how to prevent a tragedy from occurring. The program is operated by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing and available in any state that wants to use it.

While many states have required teachers to train on the topic of suicide prevention, it’s taking some time for states to broaden that scope to include mental health awareness and the support of behavioral health. This likely is because most states are struggling with mental health support in schools, according to a report by the Hopeful Futures Campaign, a group of national mental health organizations. This crisis is on the national radar, as President Joe Biden proposed $1 billion in new federal funding to help schools hire more counselors and psychologists and provide more support to suicide prevention programs after U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared an “urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.”

Until (and even when) more counselors and psychologists are placed in schools that desperately need their services, teachers and parents should remain on high alert for any potential red flags or warning signs displayed by their students and children. Unfortunately, these aren’t always obvious. Aside from clear displays of stress and anger such as outbursts, crying, and irritability, more subtle warning signs might include:

  • Change in appearance or personal hygiene
  • Steep decline in grades
  • Self-imposed isolation from peers and/or family
  • General apathy
  • Statements such as “I’m so tired of this” or “I can’t do this anymore”

If a parent, teacher, or guidance counselor notices any of these signs, the next step is to ask the student–without passing judgment or pressure–what is bothering them through open-ended questions that encourage conversation and avoiding comments that might diminish the child’s situation, such as “It’s not a big deal,” “You’ll be fine,” “I went through that, it’s not that bad,” and “Just try to ignore it.” This is not what kids need–or want–to hear. After, or even during, a conversation with the student, teachers are then advised to seek expert help if they are sensing an emergency may be transpiring.

How Bridgeway Academy Helps Students

Bridgeway Academy employs an amazing group of advisors who serve as academic experts, sources of information, and even confidants to our students and their families. And while they are not formally trained psychologists or counselors, they have many years of experience working closely with students and possess an innate ability to read the behaviors of their students.

“In terms of looking at warning signs in a student, I personally look for lack of engagement,” explained Heather Falk. “Information in responses from students when we meet, writing assignments, sudden lack of interest in work, decrease in grades–we are in tune with signals from the students.”

Bridgeway Academy takes student mental health very seriously. That’s why we’ve installed two new committees to address the “whole student.” One is Multi-Tiered Student Services (MTSS), which focuses on the educational aspect of each student. The other is called REACH, which zeroes in on the emotional and mental well-being of students. If our academic advisors notice any warning signs, they will refer the student to the MTSS committee, which will then create a plan based on the student’s needs, collaborating with both the academic advisor as well as the student’s parents.

REACH, composed of eight advisors and teachers, is designed to assist both students and parents when a student is dealing with emotional difficulties. This might be identified through a parent conversation or even from the student’s work that could reveal warning signs of something being wrong. MTSS will also partner with REACH if one committee feels a student would benefit from the assistance of the other.

Briana Temos has been working with students and their families throughout the pandemic, and her previous experience as a mental health worker with alternative education students has proven valuable. She has also witnessed an increase in emotional issues since the onset of COVID, and many parents have told her that homeschooling helped reduce not only their child’s anxiety and stress, but also their own.

“The overwhelming response to having or choosing the option to homeschool has been that they are so thankful,” explained Briana. “From families who have dealt with sickness and loss of family members, loss of jobs, hospitalization, and recovery to those students who were struggling with anxiety and worry in a regular school setting, I have been told over and over again that we have been a great source of stress relief, that in such uncertain times they know that their student is safe.

“They expressed that, if their family got sick, we were able to help give students extensions, provide suggestions, and adjust the curriculum to help them get caught up once they were feeling better,” Briana continued. “Sometimes they were just thankful for a listening ear and kind words.”

Between our academic advisors and MTSS and REACH committees, Bridgeway Academy is wholly committed to providing the mental and emotional health services our students need. While public schools are struggling to provide any type of counseling to desperate students, Bridgeway Academy’s academic advisors serve as important sounding boards and liaisons to professional mental health assistance. Our advisors form close bonds with each student and family they support, and from those bonds, our advisors are in a better position to identify any potential warning signs and communicate them to both the MTSS and REACH committees as well as parents in hopes of addressing any mental health issues before they turn into tragedies.

Mental Health Resources

If you or someone you know is going through a mental health crisis, there are people who can help. Below are resources for those seeking mental health support and assistance.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Free, 24/7 confidential support for those in distress. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Crisis Text Line: Free, 24/7 text support. Text 741741 from anywhere in the U.S. to text with a trained Crisis Counselor. 

Trevor Lifeline: 24/7 crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for LGBTQ community. 1-866-488-7386 to talk. For TrevorText, text “START” to 678678.

TrevorSpace: Online international peer-to-peer community for LGBTQ community.

Trans Lifeline: Organization dedicated to improving the quality of trans lives by responding to the critical needs with direct service, material support, advocacy, and education. Daily from 7am–1 am PST / 9 am–3 am CST / 10 am–4am. EST. 1-877-565-8860.

Veterans Crisis Line: Free, 24/7 confidential resource that’s available to anyone, even if not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care. Specially trained and experienced in helping veterans of all ages and circumstances. 1-800-273-8255, press 1. Or text 838255.

SAMHSA’s Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Accurate data, up-to-date research, and knowledge of effective strategies and interventions essential to our ability to prevent suicide.

Zero Suicide: Presents an aspirational challenge and practical framework for system-wide transformation toward safer suicide care.

National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention: Public-private partnership for suicide prevention works with more than 250 national partners to advance the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.

Comprehensive Approach to Suicide Prevention: This model shows nine strategies that form a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention and mental health promotion.

SPRC’s Effective Suicide Prevention Model: This four-minute video provides a brief overview of SPRC’s Effective Suicide Prevention Model, which can help you carry out suicide prevention efforts that are most likely to be effective.

Strategic Planning Approach to Suicide Prevention: Suicide prevention activities, programs, and other efforts are most effective when they are guided by a strategic planning process.

SPRC’s Resources and Programs Repository: Searchable repository with nformation on several types of suicide prevention programs, such as education/training, screening, treatment, and environmental change.

Sources of Strength: Strength-based comprehensive wellness program that focuses on suicide prevention but impacts other issues such as substance abuse and violence.

The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What It Means: Provides concrete, action-oriented information based on the latest science to help you improve your understanding of and ability to prevent and respond to the problem of bullying and suicide-related behavior.

#Chatsafe: A Young Person’s Guide for Communicating Safely Online About Suicide: Developed in partnership with young people to provide support to those who might be responding to suicide-related content posted by others or for those who might want to share their own feelings and experiences with suicidal thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.

Help a Friend in Need: A Facebook and Instagram Guide: Collaboration with The Jed Foundation and The Clinton Foundation, nonprofits that work to promote emotional well-being and to share potential warning signs that a friend might be in emotional distress and need your help.

Seize the Awkward: Encourages teens and young adults to embrace the awkwardness and use this moment as an opportunity to reach out to a friend.

What to Do if You’re Concerned About Your Teen’s Mental Health: A Conversation Guide: Designed to help parents and families concerned about their teen’s mental health and emotional well-being have important conversations with their child.

Youth Mental Health First Aid: Designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and others how to help an adolescent experiencing a mental health or addiction challenge or is in crisis.