Back to school might foster hopeful thoughts of back to normal. Unfortunately, nothing about COVID-19 has been normal, and returning to the classroom will require a thoughtful approach to address the significant mental health needs of students, teachers, and the community. Research on the mental health impact of COVID-19 on youth shows that children and teens are experiencing elevated rates of anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, these numbers are growing, and particularly among African American and Latino populations, who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.
Additionally, around the world many children and youth have experienced bereavement due to the death of a loved one. Bereavement is the most common and most distressing form of adversity worldwide, and has been exacerbated by COVID-19. In the United States alone, COVID-19 has claimed over 605,000 lives. A 2020 study estimated that for every person who dies from coronavirus, nine family members are affected.
Bereavement is the strongest predictor of poor school outcomes, surpassing any other form of trauma. Students who experience the sudden death of a loved one are more likely to demonstrate lower levels of academic achievement, concentration, learning, enjoyment of school, and school connectedness. For this reason, it is crucial for educators and school personnel to have the skills necessary to identify bereaved students who may need support.
Routine screening for sudden loss, grief, and trauma-related symptoms is critical for timely mental health services and is likely to improve both psychological and academic functioning. Nearly 70% of American school principals reported they do not have sufficient school-based mental health professionals to adequately serve all students who need services. Thankfully, the Texas Child Health Access Through Telehealth (TCHATT) program, established by the Texas Legislature in 2019, connects schools to health providers via telemedicine and telehealth and assists with connections to community-based clinicians who can provide longer-term interventions. Further, new federal relief funding through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund can be leveraged by school districts to strengthen mental health support for students.
A trauma- and grief-informed school environment is just as critical for teachers’ well-being as it is for students. Teachers are reporting job-related stress and symptoms of depression at much higher levels compared to the general adult population, and need a safe space to acknowledge and verbalize their own mental health needs. To help educators mitigate the effects of grief, trauma, anxiety, and other mental health challenges, The Hackett Center for Mental Health provided expert consultation on and helped distribute the documentary film, A Trusted Space. In addition, the Trauma and Grief Center at The Hackett Center continues to provide trainings to clinicians and school personnel on how to identify and assist youth who have experienced trauma and grief.
This will be a “back to school” unlike any other. We must allow space to emphasize the importance of mental health, specifically through the lens of trauma and grief. Training educators and school counselors can help facilitate the early detection of at-risk youth as well as at-risk educators. Educators need the tools to better understand how to foster a trauma- and grief-informed classroom, such as understanding that bereaved students may react and become “triggered” by potential loss reminders that can occur in the classroom (e.g., a “parent-teacher” conference).
Collectively, we can support our students, educators, and all school personnel as they go back to school. While we may not be “back to normal,” we can use this challenge to develop a new approach that will include more skills and resources to cope with life’s adversities and promote resilience.
By Gary Blau, Liz Schepel, and Julie Kaplow.