Schools place more focus on students’ mental health care as the University of Miami program supports

March 19 – The state of student mental health in Butler County schools and nationally was increasingly dismal prior to the onset of COVID-19 three years ago.

Growing numbers of students distracted by social media, drug abuse, bullying, suicidal ideation, alienation were on the rise before the onset of America’s biggest pandemic in a century.

And when the historic impact of COVID-19 hit in March 2020 – closing every school in Ohio and across America for months – everything about the mental health of middle and high school students got worse and worse fast.

A 2021 Centers for Disease Control survey showed that more than one-third (37%) of high school students reported that they experienced mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported that they felt persistently sad or unhappy. hope over the past year.

But the smallest of the deadly pandemic’s silver linings materialized with new attention from society, government and schools focused on the emotional health of K-12 students and the turmoil of their emotional lives.

And as the disruptions turned into a rollercoaster of students forced into periodic remote learning, masking debates, class schedule changes and other related issues in the first two years of the virus, a constant compromise emerged among school officials. locally and nationally: Students need more mental health resources than they did before the pandemic.

More federal and state money is being used by local school systems, and the University of Miami last month added another $1.2 million grant program to help Ohio schools, adding to the financial aid of recent years.

But the need to strengthen students’ emotional health was there long before the virus.

The leader of the 10,000-student Fairfield Schools was one of the first voices to sound the alarm for such resources before the pandemic began and continues to champion the cause.

“This is one of our most important jobs,” said Fairfield Superintendent Billy Smith.

“For us, it’s about providing as many resources and support as possible for our students and our families,” said Smith, who oversaw the increase in school counselors.

Madison Schools Superintendent Jeff Staggs, who is in his 21st year as leader of the Ohio Public School District, said the pandemic’s unprecedented onslaught — and subsequent disruptions in 2021 with lingering impacts into 2022 — on emotional well-being of students was something he had. never seen before.

“These needs have always been there, but I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to them, to be honest,” said Staggs, who was hired as Madison’s leader in 2021 and has the longest superintendent career of any Butler County district leader. .

The 1,400-student district, which is one of the smallest in Butler County, now has the first full-time student mental health specialist in its history.

“Covid has immensely exacerbated students’ mental health issues. And we dedicate a lot of resources and money to students and that’s something I don’t see going backwards and I only see increasing,” he said.

More help for students’ mental health and emotional well-being

And those resources — in the form of more school counselors, mental health therapists, school psychologists, partnerships with private providers, and even the use of school therapy dogs — have increased dramatically over the past three years, although area school leaders are quick to point out. to argue. more is needed.

And help continues to come from areas rarely seen before the onset of the pandemic.

Last month, the University of Miami announced the latest in a series of grants from the 2020-2021 school year designed to help public schools better provide staffing and mental health programs to underserved students.

Miami’s “Project Aware” is co-funded by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and is using its most recent grant of $1.2 million to help local and state schools in their ongoing assistance to improve their efforts to keep mentally healthy students.

Specifically, the grant will also help schools increase their ability to provide mental health services and support by placing dedicated behavioral health and wellness coordinators in schools across the state, Miami officials said.

And for some schools in the Miami Center for School Excellence (SBCOE) for Prevention and Early Intervention and the Ohio School Wellness Initiative Ohio program, it’s helping.

“They are seeing an increase in the number of students connecting to resources and staying connected,” said Deb Robison, director of outreach and collaboration for SBCOE. “Schools are seeing a decrease in minor infractions and suspensions. School climate surveys are showing an increase in school connection. And we are also seeing more local partners being trained in the referral process. So if a young person comes to them expressing thoughts self-harm or suicide, they know exactly how to get help. All of those things are successes.”

Last year, Middletown Schools hired a veteran Lakota school principal who, in recent years, after leaving the district, worked with a regional organization dedicated to improving youth mental health.

Suzanna Davis, director of student services for the city’s 6,300 school students, was one of the first school principals in the area in pre-pandemic years to enthusiastically embrace the nationally acclaimed Hope Squad program for teen suicide prevention.

COVID-19 has revealed the critical need to address the well-being of the entire student beyond academics, she said, adding that “these needs have continued to increase due to the overwhelming impact of COVID.

You can’t expect students to learn if they’re facing significant mental health challenges, said Davis, whose district — spurred on by COVID-19 — saw student counselors hired for all 10 Middletown schools for the first time.

“Our students’ mental health is the foundation of their educational experience and can be an extreme barrier to learning if not properly identified and supported,” Davis said.

“If we don’t engage our students with positive support for mental health, we miss a critical opportunity to promote their overall well-being.”

Monroe Superintendent Robert Buskirk said his district of 2,900 students has joined with other locations over the past three years to pool more resources to meet student needs.

As of March 2020, Monroe has added two guidance counselors, who also serve as liaisons for mental health services for youth hires, one for each elementary and high school level.

In addition, an additional social worker has been added, Buskirk said, and the district’s two schools now also provide meeting space for a private mental health company to meet with student clients and their families.

It’s progress, but more is needed, he said.

“With the pandemic, it did not create new behaviors or scenarios (of student misconduct and challenges), but made them more prominent.”

The Covid-induced disruptions to student development since 2020 persist “and we’re definitely still seeing the effect of that,” Buskirk said.

Not all local districts were able to increase resources.

Edgewood Schools, which will ask residents to pass the first school income tax increase in the district’s history in the May election, has fewer staff focused on students’ mental health due to cost constraints forced by projected budget deficits, district officials said. .

While school counselors in Edgewood increased from six in the 2020-2021 school year to seven this school year, the district lost two “social and emotional coordinators” during the same period and five part-time mental health therapists who provided assistance to students and family mental health therapy.

Fairfield North Elementary School Counselor Laura Monnier has been and continues to be on the front lines of the pre- and post-pandemic emotional health battle.

“Now we’re reaching out to our kids … meeting all of their needs,” said the 20-year veteran of Fairfield Schools, which has added counselors at each of its six primary schools since the virus began.

Forced time away from schools and the lack of development of face-to-face social interaction during the pandemic’s numerous disruptions in 2020 and 2021 produced “anxiety” among some students, Monnier said.

“They had a harder time adjusting to being in school full time,” Monnier.

She, however, remains optimistic.

“We continue to build from a new foundation and improve and add things, so I’m very optimistic, but I also see a lot of needs in the future.”

Schools place more focus on students’ mental health care as the University of Miami program supports

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