Schools Should Prioritize Mental Health Resources — for Both Students and Staff

Alicia Biros, a 42-year-old math teacher at Rhode Island’s North Kingstown High School, died by suicide in May after struggling with depression. The small community of North Kingstown, which had a population slightly below 28,000 in the last census, was rocked by her death. Months later, educators and students are still trying to understand and accept the loss.

“Alicia lived alone and when COVID hit, it brought isolation into her life and had a negative impact on her mental health,” her friend and colleague Lisa Garcia told Truthout. Garcia, the 2022 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year, describes Biros as a dedicated teacher, the kind of instructor who made lasting connections with many of her students. “When schools reopened in 2021, it was such a volatile time,” Garcia said. “We were told by administrators to keep things ‘normal’ for the kids so it would seem like everything was okay. This was not right. It was also not possible.”

Biros, Garcia says, was visibly distraught when students and faculty returned to school and worried about getting sick and infecting others. “COVID put us all in a dark place,” she said. “You could tell that being back was overwhelming for Alicia. We were being asked to do so much, and while our intention was always to care for students and help them become wonderful, productive adults, the administration ignored faculty voices. We were — and are — hurting and feel undervalued and unheard. It takes a toll.”

Indeed, COVID, alongside pressure to ramp up test preparation and raise standardized test scores — and the necessity of responding to right-wing pushback against anti-racist and pro-LGBTQIA+ curricula — has led to teacher shortages across the country. Counselors and school nurses are also in short supply, with less than half of the nation’s 98,469 public schools employing a full-time nurse. A full 25 percent of schools have no nurse whatsoever; 30 percent have someone who comes in only part-time. Worse, the National Center for Education Statistics notes that there are currently 114,480 school counselors for the country’s 48 million students, or roughly 1 for every 360 kids. Cops, on the other hand, are ubiquitous.

The upshot is that between 6 and 10 million K-12 students attend schools where police are visible, but counselors, psychologists and social workers are not.

This has had an outsize impact on the mental health of the country’s public school students. According to the 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in April 2022, millions of kids are hurting. In fact, 37.1 percent said that they had suffered from “poor mental health” during the COVID-19 shutdown. Nearly 20 percent said that they had considered suicide. Nine percent had made an attempt and more than one-third, 36.7 percent, reported persistent feelings of hopelessness or sadness.

The report attributes this crisis to school closures, isolation, economic hardship, fear of death or illness, inadequate access to health care and the loss of loved ones to the virus.

Maya Rabasa, a member of the Eugene, Oregon, School District 4J board, told Truthout that six students at South Eugene High School took their lives between January and April of this year. “Our school funding is dismal,” she said. “We do not have social workers in any of our schools and Eugene is a mental health desert. There is a service you can call if you need counseling, but it can take months to get an appointment.”

Nonetheless, Rabasa says that the suicides have provoked wide-reaching conversations about mental health, both in and outside of the schools. They’ve also kickstarted discussions about working conditions for educators. “In the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve seen a major decline in the joy teachers express about their work,” she said. “We have expected teachers to care for students, asking them to put oxygen masks on the kids in their classrooms without acknowledging that they do not have masks for themselves. This has to change.”

For starters, educators say that they need to be listened to, and given additional resources, including paid medical and family leave, when they are feeling unwell. They also say that they need to be respected as professionals who know what they and their students need to function at optimal levels, whether that is the ability to select their own course materials, or the pushing off of a deadline or mandated assignment. They also say that they need to be better trained to deal with their students’ mental health needs — and their own.

Housing and Mental Health

That said, Rabasa and other advocates emphasize that while struggles with mental health cross class, gender, racial and economic lines, unhoused students have been hit disproportionately hard by this crisis and are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide than peers with stable housing.

A report written by SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps undomiciled students stay in school, details the impact: “Homelessness at any age is a traumatic experience, causing emotional, physical, and mental injuries in children and youth,” the report reads. “It is caused by traumatic events and often leads to traumatic events, creating layers of compounding trauma that have serious consequences.”

Furthermore, the report continues, self-harm is common among unhoused youth, many of whom have been forced to leave home because of family dysfunction or after disclosing their sexual or gender identity to unaccepting relatives.

Sonia Pitzi, coordinator of education for children experiencing homelessness in eight Pennsylvania counties, serves as a liaison to homeless families and works with 26 unaccompanied minors who attend school in the region. During the summer of 2022, she told Truthout, six of these students had to be hospitalized for acute mental health problems. “There are so many issues,” she said. “Students who are on their own — sometimes living in cars, storage facilities, in campgrounds, or couch surfing — are trying to figure out what happened and how they ended up in the situation they’re in. They’re in a place they never imagined for themselves. Some were rejected by their families, or kicked out by a parent’s partner. Others were living doubled up before COVID but had to leave during the lockdown when too many people in too small a space led to problems.”

Then there’s the issue of access to services. “Even if the kid wants to speak to a counselor, demand has outstripped availability and they often have to wait months to get an appointment,” Pitzi said. What’s more, she notes that having someone to talk to isn’t the same as having a safe, affordable place to live.

“The system is broken in many ways,” Pitzi continues. “It’s actually heartbreaking. It used to be that the kids would need food, clothing or a place to shower or do laundry and I always knew where to send them. Today they need counseling or affordable housing and all I can do is listen.”

The Impact of COVID

Jordyn Roark, director of youth leadership and scholarship at SchoolHouse Connection, blames students’ struggles with mental health on the pandemic. “There is a lot of anxiety and depression and the mental health world was, and is, overwhelmed,” she said. “I’ll call multiple clinics to try and get someone an appointment and either hear that they’re not accepting new clients or that the person will have to wait a few months for their first appointment. Some end up in the emergency room as a result.”

“Young people have been in survival mode since March 2020 and we have just begun seeing the way that the pandemic has impacted their mental health,” she adds.

She calls the need for mental health services “unprecedented.”

Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, says that as a rule of thumb, it’s important “to assume that everyone is going through something.”

This commonality is not wholly negative, she told Truthout — in fact, it has lessened the stigma surrounding mental illness, and broken through the veil of secrecy that, until recently, surrounded conversations around mental health.

Still, despite these steps forward, finding a therapist is often difficult.

“Before COVID, there was already a shortage of school-based therapists and psychologists treating children and adolescents,” Twin Cities family therapist Carol Hornbeck told Truthout. “But when everything closed, some schools and community agencies stopped offering services and others pushed kids onto a waiting list. There is now an incredible backlog, and a six-month wait to see a counselor is not unusual. We’re seeing a lot more suicidality among LGBTQIA+ kids and the toll of isolation is continuing to unfold,” she said.

Much of the burden of this unfolding falls on teachers, Hornbeck continued. “They already have so much on their plates but they need training to know when they should refer a child to treatment or when they should consult with an expert.”

“Peer support programs should also be part of every elementary, middle and high school,” she said. “That could help change the culture. It isn’t enough to have anti-bullying policies. An emotional wellness program is foundational.”

Like Pitzi, Kelsey Loy, education coordinator at Family Promise of Clark County, Washington, works with unhoused families. During school closures, Family Promise created an indoor space where students could work, providing them with free meals, charging stations for their devices, and volunteer tutors to help them complete assignments.

“Many of the parents were too overwrought to learn the technology that their kids were using,” Loy explained. “Bringing the kids together helped them learn to navigate the platforms and gain new skills. They met other kids who were unhoused. Most of them believed they were the only kid without a permanent home, so meeting others helped build community and broke through their embarrassment about being poor.”

The program runs during after-school hours now that in-person learning has resumed, and continues to serve as a vital source of emotional support for participants. Nonetheless, Loy says, programs like hers don’t address the central problem facing low-income families in southern Washington State: a horrific shortage of affordable housing. “Availability is at 4 percent,” Loy said, “meaning that for every 100 households, there are four available and affordable apartments in Clark County.”

Noel Candelaria, secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association, says that these realities have pushed the union to expand collective bargaining beyond wages and benefits to include the resources necessary to fully support public school students. The community school model connects academics to programs that focus on health, wellness and political engagement, ensuring that schools are more integrated into their neighborhoods and municipalities, Candelaria said.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island teacher Lisa Garcia is using her Teacher of the Year platform to urge school administrators to elevate the voices of teachers and staff and promote self-care for educators. “Mental wellness is often presented as a personal choice,” she said. “When Alicia passed, the school system was not set up to handle it. We need to teach students, and remind ourselves as adults, that interdependence is a good thing. In the end, learning algebra, history or biology will not be useful to students unless they’re healthy. We have to keep mental health at the forefront. We can’t thrive without it.”