Return to school gives rise to mental health concerns

Practice administrator Christina Moran on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, stands beside a tactile sensory wall (with working piano keyboard) at Ellis Medicine's new and expanded child, adolescent and family mental health center in Schenectady.
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Practice administrator Christina Moran on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, stands beside a tactile sensory wall (with working piano keyboard) at Ellis Medicine's new and expanded child, adolescent and family mental health center in Schenectady.

The back-to-school jitters have taken on a whole new meaning this year.

For some students returning to the classroom, managing in-person socializing, academic expectations and changing COVID-19 guidance has given rise to anxiety and other mental health challenges.

“This is uncharted territory for a lot of adults, let alone kids. None of us have lived through a pandemic. There [are] very few experts on how to manage children in the type of situation that we’re surviving through,” said Danielle Kowalski, the clinical supervisor for inpatient psychiatry at Ellis Hospital. “We see an increase in anxiety, depression, those types of things.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between March and May of last year, hospitals in the United States saw a 24% increase in the number of mental health emergency visits by kids aged 5 to 11 years old and a 31% increase for kids 12 to 17.

Earlier this summer, Ellis opened a new child, adolescent and family mental health center to help with the growing demand for mental health services across the Capital Region. It couldn’t come a moment too soon either as the waitlist for local adolescent mental health services can reach into the hundreds, according to Kowalski.

Christina Moran, the practice administrator for outpatient mental health at Ellis Medicine’s mental health clinic, found that some adolescents they’d worked with before the pandemic did well with virtual schooling. At the same time, some who’d previously thrived in school became depressed during the pandemic, while they were isolated from classmates and teachers.

“I have a feeling we’re going to see the pendulum swing back the other way now,” Moran said.

The clinic added two more clinicians to its staff and has met with student clients virtually and in person.

“We’ve really just been creative and done what we can to meet them and make sure they got the services they need. We even have virtual playrooms so that they could still do play therapy for us. So we’ve just been creative and tried to learn as we go too and do whatever we can to make sure that we’re there for our clients,” Moran said.

At Schenectady Central School District, the Student Services Department has been all hands on deck especially when it comes to mental health. While assistant directors Donna Fowler and Dr. Rebecca DeVries geared up for the start of school, they were guided by a wellness survey that they’d conducted at the end of the previous school year.

“[Students] were really stating that they were feeling anxious and concerned about coming back, really having been out of school a long time, having been virtual for a long while but also students were worried about getting sick,” Fowler said. “They were worried about getting family members sick. . . . I would say it’s the same things students across the country have been feeling. It’s just a lot of anxiety having been home for a long time and now being back in buildings with fears and just getting back into the routine of school.”

As students have returned to school, counselors, teachers and other school staff members are focusing on building relationships and a sense of community.

“We’re currently really focusing on relationships and safety. That’s not going to be a six-week reopening thing. We fully intend that it is going to be coupled with rigorous academics over time,” DeVries said.

Stronger ties between teachers/staff and students might mean that staff members can identify and assist students who might be struggling with depression and suicidal ideation. The district also has a Crisis Prevention Team, which includes three clinical social workers and a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The team was the first of its kind in the area and was established in part because of the long waitlists for local mental health services.

“We also had so many of our students being hospitalized for mental health needs and they were going into crisis units for psychiatric evaluation and then they’d have a longer stay. We wanted to reduce those hospitalization rates. By developing this team we can bridge some of the gaps for students,” DeVries said.

The district’s middle and high schools also have a Diversion Team, which is an alternative to suspension and provides mental health screenings and connects them to counseling or other services.

In Ballston Spa Central School District, their mental health services expanded at the elementary school level just before the pandemic started.

“It has been a huge help to have the counselors at all levels, especially throughout the pandemic because they would reach out and families would, in turn, reach out to them if there was a need or concern. It could be anxiety it could be loss of job,” said Sharon D’Agostino, the director of Student Support Services.

Even with the expanded staffing, there’s still a lot of unknowns.

“We didn’t know what to expect when the children came back and we still don’t,” D’Agostino said. “We don’t know that things aren’t going to crop up much further down the line either and it’s not necessarily students . . . who have had issues in the past or not. There are children that will have anxiety issues that may crop up just for the simple fact of being out of school for so long and then coming back.”

The uncertainty regarding how the school year will go and whether or not students will be able to stay in the classrooms all year can be a cause for anxiety for some students, according to Brandon Beachamp, the director of the School Mental Health Resource and Training Center, which is part of the Mental Health Association in New York State, Inc.

“In traditional, ‘normal,’ times, the adults have all the answers and I think that what we’ve seen is the adults are saying ‘we don’t have all the answers. I can’t give you certainty,’” Beachamp said.

Beyond COVID-19 concerns, Beachamp said students may also be anxious about meeting classmates face to face.

“As adults, we’ve experienced that in our own way. We were away from people for a long time and if we scale it back and think about an 8-year-old for example, they don’t have as much experience as an adult does so it’s more impactful for them,” Beachamp said.

“This is a transition like anything else; [parents] may notice kids being more oppositional. They may notice more difficult behaviors,” Kowalski said.

To any parents who have started to notice changes in their children’s behavior, Moran recommends reaching out to get help as soon as possible to a primary care physician, the child’s school or a therapist.

In Schenectady, as students started filing into the classrooms earlier this month, Fowler was impressed by their resiliency.

“I was just so . . . awestruck by how excited and happy the kids were to be in school. Yes, we know that they may need things that we can’t even anticipate yet but I think that we have a system set up well enough that we will be preventative and not reactive and that we have support in place to be able to have the transition be successful for them,” Fowler said.

Walk planned

In support of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there will be an Out of Darkness Walk on Sep. 26 at Orenda Pavilion in Saratoga Springs and on Oct. 3 at Central Park in Schenectady.

Organized by CRNY – Capital Region NY Chapter, the local walks are part of a national goal to reduce the annual suicide rate of 20% per year in the United States by the year 2025.

“Suicide touches one in five American families. We hope that by walking we will draw attention to this issue and keep other families from experiencing a suicide loss. Our ultimate goal is to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide,” said Sandra Goldmeer, CRNY area director.

Beyond the walks in Schenectady and Saratoga Springs, there’s also one planned for Oct. 2 at Dutchman’s Landing in Catskill. This year’s goal is $250,000 and between all the walks over 1,000 participants are expected. Masks will be strongly encouraged, as is social distancing.

Registration is free and there is no fundraising requirement. The event will include not only the walk but other awareness and memorial activities.

“These walks are about turning hope into action,” said AFSP CEO Robert Gebbia in a statement. “The research has shown us how to fight suicide, and if we keep up the fight, the science is only going to get better and our culture will get smarter about mental health. With the efforts of our courageous volunteers and a real investment from our nation’s leaders, we hope to significantly reduce the suicide rate in the United States.”

To register or for more information visit afsp.org/Capitalregiontogether.

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