Mental Health in Schools: A COVID-Era Crisis
May 04, 2022

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

By John Lingan

The COVID-19 pandemic has now affected three consecutive academic years for students, teachers, and school staff. School and education leaders throughout the U.S. have continuously adjusted to prevent the spread of COVID, whether through masking policies, contact tracing, and random viral testing.  

But as we commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month this May, it is essential to recognize the obstacles that these years have presented for students and educators alike. Like everyone, they have experienced loss, sickness, and changing public health guidance, and those challenges continue. For children, their increased social isolation has taken place during important developmental stages. But schools are uniquely affected by decisions to telework or enact mask mandates, and even in good years they lack sufficient resources for mental health supports to teachers and students. The COVID pandemic has stretched these resources even thinner, as the research makes clear.  

As early as June 2020, nearly one third (29%) of parents told Gallup that their children were experiencing mental health struggles due to social distancing and community closures, including schools. The New York Times more recently reported on a 2021 survey of more than 7,000 students nationwide, in which “44.2% describing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness that prevented them from participating in normal activities, and 9% reporting an attempt at suicide.”  

In an April edition of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers examined data from the Adolescent Behavior and Experiences Survey (ABES), which tracked a variety of well-being criteria for high school students across the U.S. from January to June 2021. Among the findings: 

24% of students experienced hunger/food insecurity. 

66% of students had difficulty completing their schoolwork since the start of the pandemic. 

37.1% of students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. 

25% of students received telemedicine from a doctor or nurse, but less than one in ten reported using telemedicine to access mental health or drug and alcohol counseling. 

A recent report from the American Psychological Association (APA), “Violence Against Educators and School Personnel: Crisis During Covid,” paints an equally dire picture of COVID-era mental health for teachers and school staff. The APA Task Force conducted an online survey of more than 15,000 educators, administrators, and staff during the 2020-21 school year and came away with a multifaceted portrait of their professional concerns in the COVID age.  

Perhaps most shockingly, between 23% and 43% of all respondents reported that they wanted or planned to quit their job. Across all geographic regions of the U.S., more than one-third of respondents (34% to 38%) expressed their desire or intention to quit. 

The current stress and danger of in-person teaching is a major reason why. In both public and private schools, verbal or threatening violence perpetrated by students and parents were the most frequent type of occurring violence. In public schools, verbal or threatening violence from students was the most frequent type of violence (30%), closely followed by verbal or threatening violence from parents (27%). This means that in addition to worries about student depression, anxiety, suicidal behavior, self-harm, learning-loss, or drug or alcohol use, teachers and administration have contended with significant burnout and acute anxiety of their own.  

This adds up to a picture of U.S. schools in acute crisis. While student mental health has been in decline since well before COVID, the pandemic has made it harder to treat by making many students’ lives harder and by taxing their already overstretched support networks. Thankfully, the APA respondents recommended steps for district, state, and federal policymakers to take to address their growing concern. They include: 

Enhancing mental health programs for staff. 

Offering SEL (Social Emotional Learning), trauma-informed care, restorative justice, and cultural awareness programs in schools to address the mental health inequities across race, class, and other lines. 

Providing teacher training to match the unique challenges of education in the COVID era. 

President Biden and his administration have repeatedly addressed mental health during COVID, recently noting in a fact sheet on the topic that “the ongoing grief, trauma, and physical isolation of the last two years have driven Americans to a  breaking point.” Among other recommendations, that fact sheet includes a call to “expand access to mental health support in schools and colleges and universities,” an effort that has already started with the Department of Education’s $160 billion investment in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). These funds are designed “to address the mental health needs of students, including by training, recruiting, and retaining more school- and college and university-based mental health professionals.” 

That’s a start, but the APA report shows what work remains to be done. While the battle to contain COVID wages on, our understanding of its mental health effects, particularly on children, is only now coming into view. It is our duty to follow the data and front-line reports from educators and make sure that we make up the many losses from the last two years.