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Digging Deeper: Pandemic’s effect on school mental health services

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MADISON (WKOW) -- As the pandemic continues to change school routines, it's also having an effect on the way students receive mental health care.

In the Madison Metropolitan School District, the professionals who look out for students' emotional wellbeing and mental health are having to find new ways to do so because of the distance created by virtual learning.

"All of the normal communication channels are turned upside down right now," Kristen Guetschow, district mental health coordinator, said. "Often, we're gathering information about students every day by living and breathing the same air with them in a building, and that's just not happening right now."

Though the pandemic is top of mind, Jay Affeldt, the district's executive director of student and staff support, said it's not the only stressful situation students are dealing with. He said virtual learning, incidents of racial violence, concerns about access to food and basic resources and social isolation are also adding to the pressures students are facing.

In recent years, there's been an increasing trend of students receiving mental health services from schools.

In 2018, 3.4 million students ages 12 to 17 received mental health services in an education setting, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

That represents 14.2% of students, which is the highest percentage in the past decade.

But Affeldt and Guetschow said it's too early to know exactly how many students are seeking mental health support during this time and what the long term effects could be.

Addressing the issue

Affeldt said the challenges that have come during the past several months have highlighted the importance of school psychologists.

"Our psychologists sort of lead the way in helping make sure students are really, really well understood," he said.

MMSD's lead school psychologist, Wendy Johnson, said school psychologists work closely with students and families to ensure kids have access to the resources and services they need to thrive.

She said although virtual learning has altered the way they do their jobs, it's also made their jobs more important.

"We're keeping a very close eye and monitoring and reaching out to those students that we know aren't engaging on a regular basis," she said.

MMSD has school psychologists at every school, and Johnson said they interact with the same group of students day in and day out, so they're poised to notice problems right as they emerge.

Affeldt said one thing he and others are noticing is students craving social interactions, like those that typically happen in the cafeteria, hallways and during extracurricular activities.

"These are all things that are impossible for us to recreate [virtually]," he said. "It just makes it really tricky for students and contributes to the isolation that we know a number of our students are feeling."

Johnson and Guetschow said one way school staff is attempting to fill this need is by having virtual lunch rooms where students can interact with teachers and other students.

"Those asks of connection time, individually or in small groups have definitely increased," Johnson said.

Guetschow agreed and said, "It's powerful when you know that somebody in your school knows you and is wanting to connect with you, and school psychologists can be really central to that."

Not all bad news

Though education experts agreed this is an unprecedented time of change and stress for students, they also found silver linings.

"Now more than ever, it is so reasonable and to be expected to struggle," Armando Hernandez, the district's assistant director for integrated health, said. "We don't want to underestimate the potential negative impact, but we also want to keep in mind the strengths that we have, and how communities and families really come together to buffer that stress and to cope."

He said for some families, the extra time they've been able to spend together as a result of canceled events, virtual learning and working from home has lead to increased familial bonding.

Guetschow said she thinks this experience will lead children to develop resiliency and flexibility beyond what we currently see.

"I think we're going to discover a whole new generation of students that have developed skills that we can't even imagine right now," Guetschow said.

Finding balance

Despite some optimism, education experts said they realize this is a challenging time and parents might feel overwhelmed.

"It's not about perfection," Johnson said. "It's not about that. It's about getting through day to day."

Guetschow said parents know their children best, and if they think something is wrong or not going well, they should reach out for support.

"They don't have to do it on their own," she said. "So reach out to school staff, and keep at it until you get the answers that you need. We always knew that parents were very important partners in this work, but now that partnership is front and center. We just can't do it without each other, and we really have to be working together on the behalf of students."

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Caroline Dade

Reporter/Multimedia Journalist, 27 News

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