Mental Health in Crisis During Online Instruction

(Or, the kids are not alright) – Part 3

  • Friday, April 2, 2021 5:26pm
  • News

By Halle Wyatt and Savannah Butcher

For the Vashon Riptide

Note: This is part three of a three-part series on student mental health by The Vashon Riptide, the student newspaper of Vashon High School. Part 1, published two weeks ago, detailed in part the responses of a survey sent by the Riptide to students to gauge mental health. Part 2, published last week, detailed student support services available from the school district. To read the series in its entirety, and other recent student journalism, visit riptide.vashonsd.org.

Content warning: This series covers triggering topics such as self-harm, suicide, mental health issues, and trauma. If these make you uncomfortable, we implore you to stop reading. If you are struggling with these issues yourself, please reach out to any of the resources below. If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts or actions, please make a trusted friend, family member, or school staff member aware.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673); Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention: 1-800-931-2237; S.A.F.E. (Self Abuse Finally Ends): 1-800-DONT-CUT; National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264); GriefShare: 1-800-395-5755; Drug Abuse National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357; Family Violence Prevention Center: 1-800-313-1310; National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE.

External mental health professionals

Neighborcare first opened its clinic for Vashon High School in 2017 and has served its community with dental, medical, and mental health services. The demand for these has only grown through the years, but with a recent increase in mental health needs, the requests are overflowing.

Neighborcare therapist Anna Waldman has had a waiting list since November, and helping students this year has been far different than in the past. In order to keep her clients safe, she’s had to change the way she meets with them, whether that’s outside and in person, through video chat, or over the phone.

“I’ve found that for some clients, being on the phone has actually helped them feel comfortable to be more open and vulnerable, which has been a positive surprise,” Waldman said.

While the school district has been doing its best to give adequate support to all students who need it, independent mental health professionals in the Vashon and Seattle area have also been busy assisting young people during the pandemic.

Other therapists have also transitioned into using telehealth-style services as well, and their methods of care reflect that.

“Online connection is important right now,” Katie Jo Glaves, a marriage and family therapist and art therapist at Protea Wellness, said. “I’d never thought I’d be encouraging Minecraft and Animal Crossing, but now those are the best way for many kids and teens to socialize.”

While disconnection is a huge problem not only for teens but for all age groups during the pandemic, depression and depressive behaviors are also becoming more common among young people.

“I’m seeing more depression and more struggles with focus in school,” Glaves said. “Teens and kids who place academic pressure on themselves seem the most depressed. Many teens had developed some fantastic study skills for in-person learning — and then found they didn’t translate as well online.”

Professionals have also noticed a rise in anxiety among children and teenagers, and Glaves predicts agoraphobia will potentially become more common post-pandemic.

Although most of Glaves’ clients have been struggling more with their mental health during online learning, there is a minority that is thriving.

“Some kids who are more independent learners like the online learning space as they can work at their own pace,” Glaves said. “People who are worried about social pressures tell me a bit of the pressure is off — if you keep your camera off, you don’t have to worry as much about your appearance.”

Katie Konrad, a nurse practitioner at Vashon Natural Medicine, has also noticed various types of students doing better while learning online. According to Konrad, kinesthetic learners and introverts have benefited the most.

“The students who appreciate online school are students who have felt left out of the social world of high school. Some have felt bullied at school or simply without friends to hang with. Some are introverted and are nourished by being alone,” Konrad said. “Some are on the spectrum and find it easier to learn in their own unique ways at home, diving into projects. I love that the students who have previously struggled with school are having a chance to enjoy their learning experience more fully.”

Glaves has noticed that young people with disabilities and special needs are not being properly supported by school services.

“Kids with special needs are struggling quite a bit as well, as school was a place where they got services for their disability,” she said. “Some types of services don’t translate well online either. That isn’t anyone’s fault, but kids are taking the brunt of the pain for this.”

Schools have always had a difficult time providing adequate mental health support to students, even long before the pandemic.

“Right now, schools don’t know how to support [students’] mental health,” Glaves said. “They are asking teachers to check-in [with students] and frankly, teachers aren’t trained to help with mental health. School counselors are great, but they have huge caseloads. We need more [mental health] support in schools.”

Glaves suggested community organizations partnering with schools could help, such as the Mercer Island Youth and Family Services Foundation which pays for extra mental health support.

“Helping with mental health takes funding and the government isn’t great about funding mental health support in schools,” Glaves said.

Improved mental health funding and support for public education seem unlikely as the Washington State budget for school safety decided during the 2019-2020 session is slowly decreasing in expenditure funding. In the meantime, Glaves offered advice to anyone personally struggling, or witnessing it.

“I’d like to think the pandemic will help us slow down and figure out what is important, but sadly, I don’t see that happening as much as I’d hope,” Glaves said. “I want teens and kids to know that there is help out there if they struggle with mental health concerns. Reach out for help if you need it. Tell someone if you are struggling. For parents: your kids may be struggling with grades or friends. That isn’t unexpected. Give your kid some grace. Their grades now don’t define them (grades don’t ever define us). Teachers: be kind to your students. You don’t always know what happens outside of class. Assume everyone is doing their best.”

Looking ahead

After a year of online learning, the school is preparing to offer an optional hybrid learning mode as public health guidelines recommend. The school is planned to open in some format of this for the fourth quarter, which begins in April.

In the meantime, counselors and administrators alike will try to bring in more students to take their online classes in the great hall. Three teachers — Jason Butler, Susan Powell, and Kara Sears — are also already offering some of their classes in-person with limited class sizes.

“Please know that we are partnering very closely with our teachers and with the district administration and with all staff to try and create [a hybrid model] that we can offer as soon as possible,” Andrew Guss, vice-principal, said. “Not everybody is going to choose to come in and I get that. And we’re going to have to come up with a model that serves everybody as best as possible, but we want to be able to offer it for quarter four and that is what we are working on right now.”

As the high school works on making the rest of the school year as positive an experience as possible, administrators are drafting plans for next year and providing adequate support as the community, hopefully, returns to normal.

In the [Riptide] survey, students offered some insight on how they would like to return to school and what the administration should consider when doing so.

“Don’t be too harsh on students for missing in-person days,” one anonymous student said. “If they still need to stay at home for online schooling they should have the choice this year and they should be able to come back when comfortable.”

While some students are supportive of any version of a hybrid model, others are wary of health risks and strictly against any return to school until there is no chance of disease transmission.

“Another rapid change could be traumatic and putting students at more risk of catching COVID is unacceptable,” a student said. “So unless there is a near-zero chance of COVID spreading, it should not reopen. The school should instead focus on providing [mental health] services to [people in need] while we are still closed.”

Counselors note outside resources that schools may not be able to offer can provide major improvements to mental health, and help students connect with peers going through similar things.

“There are a few silver linings to this pandemic, this total stop of our routines gave us all this time alone to reflect on who we are and who we want to be,” Kailey Pearce, McMurray Middle School counselor, said. “I’m seeing students get really creative about finding places that support them. A lot of my students are finding communities online, like LGBTQ+ support groups or meeting friends on different platforms like Discord.”

Glaves believes that treating others conscientiously is the best way through the rest of this crisis.

“My life motto is this: everyone is doing their best and everyone can do better, with the right help and support,” Glaves said. “Let’s aim to support each other at this time. Let us be kind to each other.”

Counselors understand that finding the light in this time of crisis can feel impossible at times, and it is okay to wallow in those feelings.

“There’s a level of resilience you want to build, we have these hard feelings and we have things we need to do,” Pearce said. “I think it’s really important to stop and sit with the fact that so many people are struggling with such heavy health and mental wellness issues right now; it’s uncomfortable.”

For many students, their mental struggles have worsened over the Covid-19 pandemic. The poor connection between the administration and many students, as well as the lack of accommodations within classrooms, is increasingly frustrating to anyone experiencing worsened mental health.

“When this pandemic first started, it was shocking and scary, however, everyone felt a sort of compassion for each other,” an anonymous student said. “Now it feels like no one cares. Everyone just wants something from you. School has made me question why I should try anymore. I don’t recognize who I used to be. I’m losing passion and drive. Even my fear of failure won’t motivate me. With all of the school work going on, it feels invalidating. Almost like someone is saying ‘get over it’ even though they claim to want to understand. It’s disappointing.”

— Halle Wyatt is the Feature and Managing Editor for the Vashon Riptide. Savannah Butcher is the Design Editor of the Vashon Riptide.

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