Across the nation, students are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in their educational, family, social and personal lives. Shifts to remote learning, social distancing protocols, widespread unemployment, loss of family members and friends to the virus and a lack of access to resources and mental health providers are all taking their toll.
Personal struggles often translate to academic struggles. School counselors, typically at the front lines of student well-being and accessibility, are now getting creative in navigating new methods of helping students overcome the myriad problems they face.
Mental and Emotional Health
Many counselors’ top concern at the moment is addressing the mental health crisis in student populations. Before the pandemic, mental health problems were already on the rise for young people. Suicide rates had already reached record highs for people between the ages of 10 and 24. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children’s visits to hospital emergency rooms for mental health problems increased significantly between March and October of 2020. While some parents might turn to private counseling and professional therapists for help, many others do not have the means, time or cultural trust of therapy to provide that one-on-one support for their children.
Students who are most vulnerable are often most affected by mental health problems. Family disruption, economic hardships and decreased access to educational resources and devices can all impact students’ mental health. Plus, vulnerable students are the most likely to face mounting responsibilities at home. With rising unemployment, increasing rates of infection and the loss of loved ones, many students are now taking on additional caretaking responsibilities for their homes and families.
School counselors are at the center of the problem-solving process for supporting and safeguarding student welfare. Given the new landscape of education, they have had to remain diligent about monitoring, contacting and helping students. Check-in phone calls, virtual counseling sessions, mental-health-focused digital resources, family coaching and mental health referrals are just a few of the tools in their pandemic-handling belt.
One of the ways to combat depression and suicide in student bodies is the employment of social-emotional learning (SEL). This refers to techniques used to help students build skills and mindsets necessary for students to thrive. These skills are particularly valuable to students coping with the stressors and traumas of a global pandemic. The American School Counselor Association suggests school counselors offer students training in coping methods and skills using engaging videos, one-on-one virtual or phone counseling and multi-pronged engagement routines with students and families.
School counselors are also at the center of accounting for students’ physical well-being. Students who are learning from home often face financial, family and health issues that are difficult to spot virtually. When students don’t turn on device cameras (often because they don’t have access to them), it can be difficult for teachers to spot nonverbal signs of distress. Child abuse is increasingly unreported as the pandemic wears on, as are issues of child hunger.
Counselors are not only faced with ensuring equitable access to educational technology so students can engage with instructors and administrators who might catch issues. They are also tasked with identifying new ways of figuring out who needs help. Counselors are getting creative with offering help, arranging for families in need to receive internet access, gift cards and community resources for food, housing and financial aid.
Counselors are also central to shaping schools’ reopening plans to support students’ physical, mental and emotional well-being. These reopening plans need to incorporate a wide variety of wellness assessments and activities in order to support students both virtually and in person. The stressors and traumas of the pandemic are not going away anytime soon, so school counselors are not only crucial to addressing student needs now, but they will also be central partners in crafting the future of student support.
CASEL: Overview of SEL
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Mental Health – Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1 – October 17, 2020
The Washington Post:
Teen Suicides are Increasing at an Alarming Pace, Outstripping All Other Age Groups, a New Report Says
The Centers Helping Child Abuse Victims Have Seen 40,000 Fewer Kids Amid the Pandemic