Mental illness in children existed before Covid-19. How many students are struggling with it during the pandemic? How did school privatization contribute to this phenomenon?
A 2018 survey conducted by the National Association of Elementary School Principals noted that their top concern is the rising numbers of students with emotional problems and mental health needs. This was not the case ten years ago. What changed?
Increasingly, a harsh school environment with unbridled high-stakes standardized testing, a pushdown to what’s expected of the youngest learners, an overemphasis on impersonal screens and addiction to social media, and a dramatic increase and focus on college expectations of middle and high school students have dominated how students live. While these factors don’t necessarily cause mental illness, they don’t help students who struggle with it.
According to Kauffman and Bader in The Scandalous Neglect of Children’s Mental Health, the school can be the first place a child’s mental illness is discovered. Unfortunately, out of the 5 percent of children who have a mental illness, only 1 percent get special education or mental health services.
Depression rates have been rising and often can start in childhood. According to WebMD, that’s about 5 million children. Mental illness often presents itself in students as anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and attention deficit disorder.
Researcher Peter Gray considers the decline in play among young children and the rise in children’s mental disorders. Think about the loss of recess for children, the only true break they had in school.
For years, the focus has been on academic results and how to make a profit, transforming schooling into charters and choice. Instead of helping teachers better identify and help students with mental illness, the emphasis has been on de-professionalizing their roles to reduce the costs of paying decent salaries. The focus hasn’t been on the children.
Also, attempts have been made to eliminate special education services, the one area that could help identify and assist students with mental illness.
How are students with mental illness doing during the pandemic in the midst of confusion and blame over school openings and closings? Reports have been sketchy.
An increase in depression and anxiety was noted in university students due to the course and job concerns.
Students might be struggling with depression due to Covid-19 and the loss of the in-person school. Other children are afraid to catch the disease or pass it on to their parents or teachers. This hopefully is transitory and partly due to fears of the disease.
Back in April, The Lancet in Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19 reported that for children and adolescents already diagnosed with mental health needs, not due to the pandemic, school closures meant a lack of access to the resources they usually have through schools.
Discussion surrounds screening. How are schools and communities helping students who were already diagnosed with mental illness, who are now stuck at home and likely struggling?
If school districts and community mental health organizations worked well on behalf of these students before the pandemic, they’re likely continuing with counseling and support. But if students with mental illness were deprived of mental health services before the pandemic, they might not be getting the support they need.
Information About Mental Illness
There are many different types of mental disorders. Some common ones include
- Anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias
- Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia
Medicine.net presents 5 warning signals, and these are also broken down into a variety of behaviors on their website.
- Excessive paranoia, worry, or anxiety
- Long-lasting sadness or irritability
- Extreme changes in moods
- Social withdrawal
- Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping pattern
Signs of inattention include:
- Becoming easily distracted, and jumping from activity to activity.
- Becoming bored with a task quickly.
- Difficulty focusing attention or completing a single task or activity.
- Trouble completing or turning in homework assignments.
- Losing things such as school supplies or toys.
- Not listening or paying attention when spoken to.
- Daydreaming or wandering with lack of motivation.
- Difficulty processing information quickly.
- Struggling to follow directions.
- Reach out for support. Students with mental illness need guidance from their teacher, a school counselor, or a school psychologist who should refer the student to a therapist or doctor, especially if their symptoms are severe. It’s critical to reach out to the school or family physician for support. School counselors and psychologists should be ready to help parents, whether students work remotely or in-person. Most universities have mental health programs and should be addressing the same difficulties.
- Limit the news about Covid-19. While hearing about the rise in Covid-19 deaths on the news is unavoidable, it could be frightening, especially to younger children. Be honest and listen to children’s fears, but don’t forget that children are aware of CNN.
- Ease up on instruction. Parents and teachers fearing learning gaps due to Covid-19 might pressure students more than before Covid-19. Try to approach each learning activity by helping to create curiosity. Children rarely learn well under pressure.
- Emphasize the positive. Children might also hear they’re falling behind. Many students work well remotely or with safety restrictions at school with teachers who care. Remind students that everyone is facing the same problems. Students will catch up.
- Listen. Listen to student concerns and ask how you can help. If students are acting irrational and in danger of hurting themselves or others, of course, seek help immediately.
- Bibliotherapy. Help children find books and stories about mental illness if it would be helpful, so they understand that they aren’t alone.
- Calming Activities. UNESCO suggests yoga and meditation might be helpful.
- The Arts. Since NCLB, the arts have been replaced by academic classes, mostly in poor schools, yet the arts are where children can shine and find a focus. The arts can be helpful for self-expression and help a student with depression or ADHD.
- Music. If parents have the funds to purchase an instrument, now might be the time to do so. Children who learn to like creating music early on will find it stress-reducing, and they might continue playing their instrument when school returns. There are many toy musical instruments, even for younger children, like xylophones, drums, and ukuleles.
- Social media. Students might positively connect with friends through social media if they’re working remotely, but they still could also face cyberbullying. Social media is also addictive if that’s mostly all a student does. Help students find a variety of activities to enjoy.
- Teachers and parents work together. Teachers may see different behavior online or in-person school, so parents and teachers must work together on behalf of the student.
If you have other suggestions, please share.
Shine a spotlight on school districts that are reaching out and proactively serving students with mental illness and mental health needs during the pandemic so other districts can emulate their success.
When public schools return, as indeed they should, addressing students’ needs with mental illness should be a top priority. And public schools need to change from the pressurized institutions they’ve become due to school reform to more caring places for learning to occur. They must address what could be temporary or long term mental health problems in children. Families and children need assistance, and schools can be on the frontline to help.
Kauffman, J.M. & Badar, J. (2018). The Scandalous Neglect of Children’s Mental Health. New York: Routledge.