The coronavirus pandemic appears to be impacting students’ mental health differently depending on their age, socioeconomic status and whether they’re attending school in person or online.
So say three officials who work closely with youth mental health initiatives in Summit County.
Older students are feeling more anxious and depressed or just disappearing from school outright.
Some students who have a track record of success continue to do well, while others have struggled, especially ones who live in crowded apartments or have increased family responsibilities while parents are at work.
More students who opted to attend school online are struggling with academics than their peers who attend school in person, and officials worry that might extend to their social and emotional health, as well.
It’s too early to have data to support theories about the pandemic’s effects on students, the officials said, and they warn the true effects may not be known for years to come. One thing they do know is that more students are being referred into the school-based counseling program compared to years past.
Nelson Clayton runs the University of Utah behavioral health program that’s offered in Summit County schools, which aims to provide a counselor to each school for a set number of hours each week.
He said the pandemic has simultaneously increased students’ susceptibility to challenging circumstances at home while decreasing the protective factors that they normally rely on, like a supportive network of friends or access to trusted adults.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Clayton, He said any student who wants to speak to a counselor should find a trusted adult like a parent or teacher to help them enter the school-based counseling system. Any adult that would like to arrange help for a student should begin by contacting that student’s school administrators, he added.
Ben Belnap, associate superintendent of student wellness in the Park City School District, said he’s seen an increase in the number of students requiring mental health support and that the issues appear to manifest differently by age.
Younger students may act out more, but older ones may withdraw, he said.
“As they get older, we’re finding a really strong coordination with just disappearing, dropping off from remote work, not engaging, not turning in assignments,” Belnap said.
Belnap said there appears to be an increase in depression and anxiety in older students.
“Everything just feels bigger and heavier right now,” he said, offering the example of a student who’s told they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus and may have brought it home to older family members.
Mary Christa Smith, the executive director of Communities that Care, also said that the pandemic appears to be hitting older students harder, depriving many of the high school milestones that they hoped they’d have.
Belnap advocated for parents who see a slip in their student’s grades to intervene as soon as they can and to check in with the student’s teachers, especially if the students are remote learners.
Clayton, who works directly with elementary school students, spoke about unseen impacts and widening achievement gaps.
He indicated that the consequences can be dire and compounding when students don’t reach certain academic milestones, like reading at grade level by third grade. And he said that the pandemic hasn’t impacted everyone equally.
“I think you may see an increasing divergence in the lived experience due to the pandemic, where the vulnerable become more vulnerable and the resilient experience less harm or ill effects,” Clayton said.
Summit County in the summer of 2019 contracted with University of Utah’s Healthy U Behavioral to provide behavioral health services, including counseling in each of the county’s schools. But Nelson said that the program has a shortage of counselors this year, and some schools don’t have dedicated counseling hours.
The limiting factor isn’t money, he said, but a shortage of counselors, some of whom told Clayton they were afraid to go into schools amid the pandemic. The program is currently operating at a deficit of five or six counseling hours per week.
Clayton said he’s taken to working one day per week at Trailside Elementary School to help fill in the gaps.
All Summit County students are able to access counseling, he said, and the program has accommodated students from all schools by making special appointments for students affected by the staffing shortage.
Belnap said students who are working remotely have struggled more academically and that he suspected that extended to mental health, though he lacked the data to prove it.
“It’s just not the same as in-person (learning),” Belnap said. “Now it’s just so much easier for a student to just disappear by simply not logging on.”
Smith said she was looking forward to the biennial SHARP student survey that would include data taken next March about how students across grade levels are reacting to the pandemic, including whether there are increased levels of substance abuse or if students are engaging in more antisocial behavior.
She added that it’s too soon to tell the pandemic’s effects on students, and that the crisis might present an opportunity to integrate some of the things that have helped students who do not thrive in the normal school setting.
Clayton said he witnessed daily the work done by educators who are trying to reduce the pandemic’s effects, seeing it when teachers help students lace up their boots and tie their shoes, or when counselors coax a reluctant student into the classroom for another day.
“But I also do have a lot of concerns about the long-term effects on the kids and society as a whole,” Clayton said. “I hope that eventually, society is a loving, trusting place to grow up in. To me, I feel like the last nine months have sent the opposite message to a lot of our children.”