Educators are key in protecting student mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Jordan Jansen, 12, does school work at the kitchen table in his family's Middletown home Jan. 25, 2021. The Jansen's four school aged children are doing full time virtual learning as their parents have opted to keep them home for the entire school year due to COVID-19 concerns.Learning Curve

American students were experiencing widespread mental-health distress long before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. A tragic expression of this distress, youth suicide has been on the rise for the past decade and is now the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. Now, the pandemic is making matters worse. In a recent survey, over 80% of college students reported that COVID-19 has impacted their lives through increased isolation, loneliness, stress, and sadness. Although it’s too soon to conclusively link national youth suicide data to the pandemic, school districts across the nation have been reporting alarming spikes in both suicides and attempts at self-harm.

These connections are entirely unsurprising given what we know about the impact of social isolation on mental and emotional well-being. While stay-at-home orders, quarantines, and social-distancing precautions are essential public-health tools for curbing the spread of infectious disease, these measures may well have the opposite effect on the prevalence of psychological anguish and distress. Students in kindergarten through college faced a sudden transition to online learning in the spring of 2020, finding themselves abruptly disconnected from their established daily routines, support systems, and sources of security. This disruption occurred at the precipice of a year of extended isolation in the context of a devastating global pandemic and social, political, and economic unrest. Millions of students have still not returned to the classroom and new research identifies young adults as the most vulnerable group for anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Indeed, we find ourselves amid a student mental-health crisis.

As we continue to weather the impacts of the pandemic and work toward recovery and an eventual full return the classroom, here are three things educators, school counselors, administrators, and parents can do.

1. Know the warning signs of distress in students.

Given the scale of disruption that students have experienced over the course of the pandemic, parents and educators should know that some increased stress, anxiety, and apathy among students is expected. Students who were thriving in an active educational community before the pandemic may resist or find it difficult to fully participate in a virtual environment. As a college professor, I’ve noticed students who were confident and enthusiastic participants in the classroom struggle in finding their voice during a Zoom class riddled with technological glitches and new cultural norms related to communication. As a parent, I’ve navigated myriad meltdowns trying to convince my six-year-old to log on to yet another day of virtual school. While not necessarily normal, this type of low-grade distress has become the norm in these strange times.

Parents and educators should expect challenges but keep a careful lookout for sudden or extreme changes in student behavior, moods, and activities. If a student abruptly begins refusing to participate in their normal activities or begins lashing out in ways that cause harm to themselves or others, it is important to connect them with resources to help. As students begin returning to the classroom, educators should watch for new signs of social phobia or discomfort, understanding that students may struggle to transition seamlessly back into the social setting they successfully navigated in pre-COVID-19 times.

With so much going on, it may be hard for adults to spot signs of distress in a timely manner. Harnessing increasingly sophisticated technological risk-assessment tools, creating smaller group settings for students, maintaining connection touch points, and championing a culture that empowers peers to look out for each other (such as the Sources of Strength model) are all ways to help ensure that someone spots and acts on a warning sign in time.

2. Connect students with resources to help.

For students who are struggling, resources for help are out there. The trick is connecting students to the best form of available support, whether in their homes, schools, or communities. Communication is key to this challenge. At my children’s elementary school, a “parents as partners” model establishes and encourages pathways for communication between parents and teachers. This is a great place for educators and parents to start. Parents should know whom to talk to at their child’s school or university about mental health concerns and should be aware of the school’s resources for helping. Educators and administrators should be proactive in sharing information about mental well-being programs available on their campus and in the community as well as school policies with parents, so that adults are working together to identify and address problems before they become more serious.

Parents can provide resources at home, including dedicating physical space for virtual learning and creating structure for students to focus on school at home, while offering plenty of breaks to step away from screens and get outside. Distressed students might benefit from at least some in-person connection with peers—another important resource—if (and only if) parents can find safe ways for such interactions to occur. Considering the high levels of stress that students, parents, and teachers have been exposed to over a long time, we all should actively seek pleasant activities and practice self-compassion to increase our ability to cope.

Educators and administrators can help by making available dedicated resources for mental well-being, resilience, addressing challenges with online learning, and assisting with the transition back to in-person learning. This may take the form of counseling staff or services, or a comprehensive online program such as the Student Resilience Project Toolkit, a trauma-informed, student mental-health and wellness toolkit recently launched at my university to help students build coping skills and connect them to university resources. Parents, educators, and administrators should always have available community resources at the ready to share with students, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Trevor Project to support LGBTQ youth.

3. Build social connection.

Just as we can intuit that social isolation is likely to exacerbate psychological distress and even suicide risk, we can expect social connection to be a strong protective factor for young people. In fact, research tells us that students at risk of suicide are more likely to turn to a peer than an adult or authority figure for help, and that social connection may reduce the risk of suicide by fostering a sense of belonging. Indeed, tapping into existing peer networks appears to be a promising means of supporting students and intervening with those who are struggling. The challenge, though, is how do schools and universities nurture social connection in the virtual, inherently disconnected environment of the pandemic?

I hope to address this question directly in upcoming research, but for now I can share some best practices already at educators’ fingertips. For example, when it comes to social connection in an educational setting, class size matters. Especially in a virtual setting, reducing class sizes or offering ample opportunity for dedicated small-group interaction for the same kids to interact over time can help students feel more connected to their peers. One-on-one connection points are critical, too. If it is not feasible to offer students extended one-on-one time with a teacher, pairing students with a peer or an older student mentor can encourage students to support each other and connect over what they are learning. Educators should also take care to prioritize opportunities for active connection (direct, back-and-forth interactions) over passive connection (scrolling a chat or social-media feed), as passive connection can have the opposite effect on the goal of increasing social connection. Educators should also be explicit with students that they are a source of support for mental-health issues.

The bottom line in these challenging times is that focused, meaningful interactions matter greatly. Encourage students to take breaks from screens when they can and take care to cultivate connections wherever possible. Schools and parents may find the benefits to mental well-being extend far beyond the end of the pandemic.

Thanks to Lily Swanbrow Becker for writing support on this post.