Schools ready to address pandemic-driven mental health needs

A sign reads "Mental Health" on a wooden shelf with books.
A shelf at the South High School library are filled with books about mental health. Even before COVID-19, about 15 percent of school age kids were thought to have a mental health or behavioral disorder, and schools were having a hard time providing enough mental health support. The pandemic has only added stress to the system.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

As schools in Minnesota and around the country prepare to open in a few weeks — whether in-person, hybrid or remotely — teachers and school officials aren’t just scrambling to figure out how to keep students learning. They’re trying to figure out how to help students handle their mental health.

Minneapolis Public Schools opened a hotline when the schools closed in March, one of several districts around the country to do so. 

We just wanted to make sure that our families ... had just another resource available to them so they weren’t alone during such a trying time,” said Rochelle Cox, an associate superintendent in the Minneapolis school district. 

Even before COVID-19, about 15 percent of school-age kids were thought to have a mental health or behavioral disorder, and schools were having a hard time providing enough mental health support.

“Unfortunately school mental health is chronically underfunded and understaffed,” said Sharon Hoover, who co-directs the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland. “The student to student support staff ratios are not what they should be, so a lot does fall on the shoulders of our educators when we don’t have the proper student instructional support personnel in place.”

The pandemic has only added stress to the system.

Kids around the country are struggling with the loneliness of isolation and the loss of routine. In some cases, they’re dealing with the stresses from things like family members who have gotten sick — or even died; parents who have lost jobs, homelessness and other serious concerns. And for many, school was a place where they got mental health care, or was, at least, an escape from complicated home situations. 

Studies from previous crises, like Hurricane Katrina, have shown that not taking care of kids’ mental health can have long-term negative consequences for their academic performance. Last month, the United Nations called the mental health effects of the pandemic an impending disaster.

Knowing that mental health troubles can distract from learning, schools are trying to find ways to help. 

Patrick McCauley is a social worker with the Los Angeles school district. All summer, he’s spent a few hours a week in his garage, answering the mental health hotline the district set up shortly after schools closed.

Sitting on the camp chair he uses instead of a desk chair in his makeshift office — he did recently replace the workbench with an actual desk — he takes calls from parents, students and even teachers. 

Patrick McCauley, a social worker with the Los Angeles school district
Patrick McCauley, a social worker with the Los Angeles school district, answers calls for the district’s mental health hotline from his garage, while working from home. He and his colleagues have been taking calls from students, parents and teachers.
Courtesy of Patrick McCauley

One mother called while her daughter was having a meltdown, “literally having a tantrum, she was throwing things around,” McCauley said. 

Another one called because her son was struggling with his parents’ separation, plus the isolation of the lockdown. As the mother told McCauley, he had withdrawn socially from the family and gotten less interested in things he normally liked at home and in the neighborhood. 

Some of the problems are relatively minor, like the girl having a temper tantrum. In that case, McCauley reassured the mother that her child’s behavior was a perfectly reasonable response to these extraordinary times, and that the mother’s own feelings were legit, too. He also offered her some tips on how to manage the girl’s behavior.

Other calls have been more serious — like parents worried their child is suicidal. Counselors have done risk assessments and connected families to the county Health Department and other resources if they need more help.

In Minneapolis, the district is hoping to find money to add more therapists and mental health support staff. And in the meantime, Cox said, some in-person mental health care will be available, even if schools are teaching remotely for the foreseeable future. 

“What we’re planning on is working with some of our community partners to make sure they have a health safety plan in place and starting to invite them back in to provide some by appointment one-on-one services for students,” she said.

Still, what hotlines like the ones in Minneapolis and Los Angeles have made very clear is that people depend on school for a lot more than learning. Of the roughly 2,500 people who had called the Los Angeles hotline by mid-July, only about 300 had specific mental health questions. Another 150 had more general health concerns. But, by far the most callers —around 800 — had questions about more basic needs, like food and shelter. 

Alisa Roth is a correspondent for Call to Mind, Minnesota Public Radio's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.