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Lockdown Hopelessness Spurring Student Mental Health Concerns

Student mental health has been an ongoing challenge during the coronavirus pandemic response worldwide. As schools remain largely remote, students have lost out on developmental milestones, community resources, and social opportunities, leading many to protest, skip classes, or experience mental health challenges—sometimes with devastating results.

In Clark County, Nevada, a spate of student suicides pushed the fifth largest school district in the United States to bring students back to in-person classes as quickly as possible, starting with some elementary school grades and groups of struggling students, The New York Times reported. By December 2020, Clark County had recorded 18 student suicides, compared to nine in 2019. In addition, the school district, which covers the city of Las Vegas as well as the surrounding area, invested in an early-warning system that monitors student activity on district-issued devices for signs of suicidal thoughts, self-harm, or cries for help. Between June and October 2020, the system generated more than 3,100 alerts.

By 2018, suicide had become the second-leading cause of death for youth and young adults in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health professionals warn that a growing sense of hopelessness as the pandemic drags on could further exacerbate the problem by affecting vulnerable students.

In France, some students were permitted to return to partial in-person classes this month, with government officials acknowledging that lockdown-related mental health problems are a growing public health concern for young people. French President Emmanuel Macron urged students to look out for one another as they cope with stress and depression during the pandemic, Reuters reported.

In the UK, a poll of 2,000 Nottingham students found that 92 percent feel as though their mental health has suffered because of the pandemic. Seventy-six percent said their mental health has worsened since the introduction of the third national UK lockdown, according to the Nottingham Tab.

In a study of 200 U.S. college and graduate students from the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit focused on protecting emotional health and preventing youth suicide, 63 percent said their emotional health is worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic, with a high proportion of students dealing with anxiety (82 percent), social isolation/loneliness (68 percent), depression (63 percent), trouble concentrating (62 percent), and difficulty coping with stress (60 percent). One in five students surveyed reported having suicidal thoughts in the past month.

A nationwide poll from Navigate360 and John Zogby Strategies found that many U.S. teenagers are not confident in schools’ ability to keep them safe; only 42 percent of students surveyed said they believe their school is doing its best to create an atmosphere of physical and emotional safety. While 56 percent of students said they personally knew someone who considered self-harm or suicide, only 32 percent said they believed their school was prepared to handle the issue. There is an education gap as well—only 36 percent of teens aged 16-17 reported they knew who to call and where to report a threat.

The Jed Foundation survey found that students are hungry for support from their school administrations; 71 percent of students said they would use telemental health services if they had access to them through their school. Students would also welcome support groups and regular check-ins with school administrators.

Some schools are working to connect with students and rebuild personal connections that were taken for granted during in-person learning. The New York Times reported that some teachers in Washington, D.C., are making house calls to check on students who are missing classes. In Los Angeles, school officials distributed laptops, iPads, and Internet hot spots to ensure students could connect to classes and stay engaged. But the human connection is hard to replicate online, and long-term remote learning could have significant impacts on students facing tangential instabilities, such as food insecurity, economic instability, and potential evictions.

“Such instabilities are having a significant impact on many school communities,” says Dr. Franci Crepeau-Hobson, an associate professor and director of clinical training at the University of Colorado Denver School of Psychology. She is also cochair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee. “We know that these issues can create ongoing stress that activates the stress responses systems. Our brains interpret this as a threat so that these kids and families are in a constant state of alert. As such, they may be more dysregulated, reactive, and inattentive. Additionally, it is not possible to access the higher parts of our brain required for learning when in such a state of autonomic arousal. So, these kids are going to struggle to meet any academic expectations.

“The key,” she continues, “is to calm the stress response through routine and regulating activities… For those who are not struggling with food and housing insecurities, all the uncertainty related to the pandemic (as well as other things happening in our country) are going to make it very difficult for them to attend, learn, and perform academically.”

Crepeau-Hobson adds that returning to physical classrooms won’t magically address student stressors and mental health challenges, especially if districts are forced to switch back and forth between in-person and virtual learning as COVID-19 cases rise and fall. To help with the uncertainty of what the next day will bring, she recommends giving students opportunities to share their perspectives, speak frankly, and ask questions. This is where having cross-departmental teams and resources can help.

“School mental health professionals need to partner with teachers to a) equip them with tools to assess and support students who are struggling and b) help teachers deliver psychoeducation and classwide interventions that address the social/emotional needs of all students,” she says. “This includes approaches that ensure students feel physically and emotionally safe at school such as modeling respectful behavior—addressing bullying, microaggressions, and bias. Teaching students about the impact that a traumatic event such as the COVID-19 pandemic can have on their functioning can help normalize their reactions. Facilitating the development of strategies for self-regulation and help-seeking can also be helpful.”

While conflict-related behaviors such as bullying, drugs, assault, and disruptive behavior have declined during remote learning, according to Crepeau-Hobson’s team of interns working in U.S. schools, a lack of engagement is the biggest behavioral concern, particularly in missed classes and missed assignments.

“Engagement is key to assessing how students are doing, and through virtual learning, we can’t say that we really know,” the intern told Crepeau-Hobson.

“We know that relational health is a buffer to stress and adversity,” Crepeau-Hobson adds. “While establishing and maintaining relationships in the context of remote learning is challenging, it's not impossible. Teachers and school mental health professionals—and other school personnel such as SROs—should touch base with each child on a daily basis. Partnering and collaborating with families is also key—helping them establish a consistent routine at home, providing opportunities for kids to talk about their feelings and ask questions, etc.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at