Student mental health services move online as counselors and teachers connect with children

With the implementation of distance learning in full swing in districts throughout the state, one of the many questions that remains is how to provide the mental health supports that so many California students have access to on campus — especially now, as many children and families are in desperate need of such support.

School mental health practitioners and state education officials addressed this challenge virtually April 16 for the second part of the three-part webinar series hosted by Wellness Together School Mental Health and the California Department of Education. For many schools, that means providing services through video chat, which comes with its own complications.

“Even before the highest level of intensity of this pandemic had impacted our schools, we were already having conversations about how to expand mental health services and supports for students,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

Prior to Gov. Gavin Newsom ordering all non-essential workers to shelter in place until further notice, the Governor had proposed new 2020–21 spending to expand community schools programs and provide more school-based mental health programs. Due to the significant economic impact COVID-19 has had, Thurmond said there is now a “question mark on how many of those programs might proceed.”

“We know that there is just a tremendous amount of need, and we want to continue our work to consider the needs of students and families as it relates to mental health,” he said. “This whole pandemic challenges everything we know and forces us to think about how we deliver education through distance learning. And while there was already telehealth before the pandemic, this stretches us to think about how we deliver quality mental health services through remote methods. It is a challenge unlike anything we’ve faced before, but as it relates to educating our students and providing the supports that they need, it is a challenge that we must and will rise to meet.”

As school closures continue as are expected through the rest of the 2019–20 school year, mental health challenges are likely to be exasperated, and isolation means that children living in homes where there is abuse or neglect won’t have access to the support systems they otherwise would have at school.

While many teachers and student support staff may feel helpless in ensuring students are safe through virtual learning methods, experts noted that just because staff can’t be with the children physically doesn’t mean they can’t still be there for students.

“Research tells us very clearly that child abuse rates increase during times of stress, and it is no secret that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on households, and the stress levels are rising and not all families are equipped to handle it,” said Cassie Lowe, program director at Child Abuse Prevention Council of San Juaquin County. “As you guys are doing your work and engaging with students and families, your role is critical in keeping your eyes and ears on those families. School staff are some of the primary reporters of child abuse and neglect because you spend the most time with them, and students share a lot of things with you. That relationship is so valuable and you absolutely still have a role in keeping kiddos safe.”

Lowe said that because educators and school mental health professionals know the students they work with, they are likely to pick up on behaviors that students exhibit that are outside of the norm. This could be as simple as noticing a typically engaged and extroverted child acting timid or quiet during virtual meetups. If teachers are to pick up on small changes in behavior, however, it’s important to try and keep focused on the task at hand — something that will likely prove challenging working from home and only interacting through a computer screen, Lowe said.

Monica Nepomuceno, education programs consultant with the CDE’s Mental Health Services Program, said it’s important to embrace the idea that ultimately, operational functioning may look very different even after students return to school sites.

“Nobody really knows what the future is going to hold. This isn’t meant to alarm anybody — I just want to remind you that change isn’t always bad,” Nepomuceno told attendees. “We really are at a pivotal point to step back and look at what we’ve been doing, and how we’ve been operating, and find ways to improve the educational system. It’s a cliché at this point but we are living in unprecedented times. And unprecedented times call for unprecedented solutions.”

Register for part three of the CDE and Wellness Together webinar series, which will be held April 23, and catch up on part one here.

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