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I’ve Been in School Mental Health for 10 Years. My Heart Is Breaking Right Now.

As a school-based social worker, I see COVID’s heavy toll. Social workers can’t fix this alone. We need systemic change.

The current reality crushes even the ambitions of those who are trying to exert change beyond the walls of their counseling rooms.

Part of the Series

For much of the spring of 2020, I sat on a pink armchair in my bedroom and desperately tried to support the kids and families at the school where I was employed as a part-time social worker. I was armed with a lot, or very little, depending on your perspective: a phone; a laptop; consistent wi-fi; years of graduate school and work experience; compassion, more or less; and a working knowledge of children and the city in which I lived, more or less.

Many of the families on my caseload spoke of their desperation in the face of new and intensified problems, and the fear, conflict, stress and cloistered chaos that entered their lives in mid-March and then simply remained. Others were unreachable; my calls and emails went unanswered, and teachers reported students who seldom appeared on class Zoom calls, or appeared only as black squares, worryingly silent.

I remember parents crying as I met their pixelated faces with what I hoped was an expression of empathy and support, itself blurry. Sometimes children themselves articulated their difficulties, choppily, as the connection ebbed. These families spoke of food scarcity; constant strife; schoolwork that was never done; paid work that could not be completed; younger siblings who must be supervised; relatives who were sick or dying; children who wept, raged, or cowered, consumed by worry.

Sometimes I could offer solutions to these ills, but often I could not; my own children jangled at the doorknob, and I was forced to say, as I ended the conversation, “I’ll make some calls, and let you know,” or “I’m so sorry; that’s so hard.” It hurt, every time, but there was, ultimately so little I could do. It was an intensification of a sensation I’ve had for years: For every student whose life has been improved by my labors, there are those whose challenges are too deeply entrenched for me to help much at all, given the limited resources attached to my role and the tenuousness of the infrastructure our country has to support families — parents, children — facing addiction, mental illness, medical challenges, undiagnosed learning disabilities, poverty, intergenerational trauma or some combination of all of these factors.

My own school returned to in-person learning a few months later, in September 2020, much to my relief. Some of the problems vanished, seemingly overnight. Some seemed like ripples that died out slowly; some challenges simply stayed. Many other schools remained remote, in some form or another, until fall 2021. (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 35 percent of 4th and 8th grade students were fully in person in February 2021.)

In May of 2022, I spoke to school social workers, counselors and psychologists across the country. I wanted to know about the shape and texture of their working lives during the pandemic. They told me things that were hard to hear, about fundamental shifts in their work.

“Usually I turn my phone off, but my phone has been really on all the time because I’m worried about this one student,” Marsha Carey, a social worker in a charter high school in a large northeastern city told me, speaking to a dissolution of boundaries that would have been unimaginable to her before the pandemic. “One of my student’s moms died [of COVID-19]…. Sometimes my phone rings at 1, 2 o’clock in the morning, [and I answer because I’m] scared that my student can’t handle it anymore, where she’s suicidal. She doesn’t have a mom anymore, she doesn’t have a dad, her support system is not that great. [I’m] on call 24/7. That’s been very hard. You take it home to your family.”

I have worked in school mental health for nearly 10 years, and throughout most of the pandemic. So much of what these workers told me — many of whom asked that I use only their first names, or share only general geographic information about their schools, given the sensitive nature of their work — resonated with my own experiences. The workers I interviewed for this piece range in focus from elementary to high school, and they come from public, charter and independent schools. But there was a striking sameness to their observations, as they described the effects of the harm wrought by the twin traumas of COVID-19 (by which I count both disease and economic fallout) and extended remote schooling.

School counselors and social workers described schools full of children who were, as a group, experiencing developmental delays: “The 9th grade class as a whole is having all these large-scale social issues that are just usually more common in middle school or elementary school,” Kira, a counselor at an independent high school in a mid-Atlantic suburb told Truthout.

Meanwhile, elementary practitioners told me their children were grappling with developmental struggles typical of preschoolers, and middle school practitioners told me their children were navigating the social, emotional and behavioral terrain of elementary schoolers.

Students struggle simply to be in class after remote learning. Jamie Spiro, a therapist based in a high school in a large city in Washington State, described the current landscape of her adolescent clients. “I have some students who wear a mask but not because of COVID; they have anxiety around showing their faces.… Doing school by Zoom provided an opportunity to have their screens off. Returning, they had a lot of anxiety about their face being shown, and also some students got used to being in a Zoom class and exiting when they wanted. They’re surprised when they can’t just … leave class.”

Teachers were ill-equipped to support these challenges. Zoe, an elementary school social worker from central Wisconsin told Truthout that, “Any time a student experiences anything sort of emotional, the teacher takes the approach of ‘I’m maxed out; can you just fix it?’”

Many people I spoke to were the only counselor or social worker in their school. They all served hundreds of students. As a culture, we have unceremoniously dumped the aftershocks of fear, loss, economic stress, uncertainty and isolation into the laps of thinly stretched professionals.

Like many, I have worked hard in my time as a social worker to manage my own and others’ expectations of my work. I do not “fix” children; I meet children and caregivers where they are, and support them — perhaps through change, perhaps not. I connect them to outside services and supports when they are available; sometimes such resources do not exist, or are geographically, financially or logistically inaccessible. I can go above and beyond on some days but not all. But when the problems become larger, more numerous, more entrenched, what becomes of your carefully constructed limits, your sense of efficacy?

Heather Findley, director of mental health services for Holt Public Schools, a suburban and rural district in Michigan, wondered aloud about the impact of the pandemic on Holt’s students and, as a result, on its mental health staff: “How do you ultimately know that it’s not you not doing your job; it’s everything else that’s going on around it that’s impacting that, and how do you not then take that personally and be like ‘I’m not servicing the way I should be?’”

Breanne, a school counselor in a mid-sized city in Washington State echoed this. “It’s been hard to even just take a day off to take care of yourself because you come back and students are like ‘Where were you,’ and ‘I tried to see you’ and ‘I needed this’ and ‘my family is getting evicted.’… You just feel that sense of responsibility for them but also, you’ve got to take care of yourself because everybody knows you can’t give from an empty tank.”

Breanne is leaving her role to become an assistant principal, and had a keen understanding of the ways in which the challenges of this moment extended beyond the walls of her school.

“We feel like we’re on our own in these situations, and even in our district we’ll talk and be like, ‘Maybe it’s just our population,’” she said. “Then we get to statewide events or national conferences online, and hearing these exact same things…. This isn’t isolated, this isn’t just a me thing; it’s not just my population, this is all over the country.”

And then on the day of my last scheduled interview, a teenager with an AR-15 murdered 19 schoolchildren and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The high school social worker in Chicago with whom I had arranged to speak that evening messaged me in the afternoon. “I’m struggling,” she wrote. She was very sorry, and sent me multiple apologies for canceling.

The day after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — who in April slashed $211 million from the department that oversees mental health programs in his state — said: “We as a state — we as a society — need to do a better job with mental health. Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge. Period.”

These words require some scrutiny as we try to make sense of what this country’s frontline mental health workers have been tasked with over the past 27 months.

The pandemic followed years of budget cuts to educational institutions and an increasingly frayed infrastructure (if it can even be called that) for addressing youth behavioral health. I absolutely believe in the power of mental health support. Researchers who highlight the value of identifying depressed and potentially violent young men are surely not wrong that the threats these teenagers pose to themselves and others are preventable. But I am increasingly wary of this notion — popular across party lines — that therapy is the tool that will rescue us from pain and dysfunction. (“Counselors not cops!” has become a popular rallying cry in progressive movements to defund the police, and while I agree that counselors are more useful to students than cops, I also have an intimate awareness of the structural barriers that stymie even the best counselors, and the ways that they are often inaccurately presented as a panacea.)

Introducing mental health into a conversation about patriarchal violence and access to militarized weaponry seems to be a dangerous splinter off of a large, long-held confusion: the idea that counselors, therapists and social workers can fix things. We cannot. We cannot fix the harms wrought by a starkly unequal, violent society. We cannot fix the harms wrought by racism and patriarchy. We can only listen, support, connect, and move those willing closer to change, or toward whatever it is that they seek.

I am reminded of another delusion of our culture. For years, this country has traded in the lie that the harms of inequality could be erased by fostering grit and resilience within schools. In the absence of a safety net — of universal health care; consistent poverty relief; access to quality, affordable and consistent mental health care; subsidies for families; or even sufficient programs to combat food insecurity — the school reformers of the ’90s and today have tasked educators with meeting needs, and repairing damage, of preposterous proportions.

Those who wish to avoid the reality that deep, systemic change is needed will push the fallout of the pandemic and the epidemic of gun violence onto the laps of overworked and underpaid school mental health workers. But the current reality crushes even the ambitions of those who are trying to exert change beyond the walls of their counseling rooms.

“There are a lot of instances of racism — student-to-student, teacher-to-student, at this school,” Sara, a school counselor in a Philadelphia charter high school, told me, her words slow and agonized. “Because everyone is at their [wits] end, to try to address those types of issues that need to be addressed, and as the counselor it is my job to do that … that becomes increasingly difficult.”

She, too, is leaving her job, to work in private practice.

We must shout the truth to those in power: They have abandoned this country’s children, and we cannot clean up their mess, however much our failure to do so might break our hearts.

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