There’s a spike in mental health issues among kids returning for school learning: NPR

Months after children return to the classroom for in-person learning, educators and healthcare providers are overwhelmed by the number of children struggling with behavioral and mental health issues.



ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For children nationwide, this school year was meant to bring a return to normalcy, ending the isolation and stress of remote or hybrid learning. But halfway through the year, schools and healthcare providers say they are seeing a massive increase in the number of students struggling with mental and behavioral health issues. NPR’s Rhitu Chatterjee has the story.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: When Millis Public Schools opened its doors this fall, teachers and staff were happy to see everyone back in the classrooms. Bob Mullaney is superintendent of the school district located just southwest of Boston.

BOB MULLANEY: You know, we were so excited to have everyone come back to start the school year.

CHATTERJEE: But, he says, it’s been stressful.

MULLANEY: From the beginning, we’ve seen high levels of stress, anxiety, different behavioral issues among students.

CHATTERJEE: More students are acting out, being aggressive — not just in his school district, but across the state.

MULLANEY: We had a principal in Massachusetts who was assaulted by a student. Staff members have been assaulted by students. We have had students assaulting other students.

CHATTERJEE: And students get hurt.

MULLANEY: We’ve seen an increase in students with self-harm issues, suicidal ideation, more suicide attempts, things that the school itself is really not equipped to handle.

CHATTERJEE: Mullaney says the school district has referred more children for mental health treatment than ever before, and health care providers nationwide are seeing more and more referrals coming in.

VERA FEUER: Certainly, we see schools referring children with more behavioral and aggressive problems.

CHATTERJEE: Dr. Vera Feuer is associate vice president of school mental health at Cohen Children’s Medical Center on Long Island, which operates a few behavioral health centers serving 14 school districts. She says she and her colleagues see children with a range of mental health issues.

FEUER: Many of them still come for a suicide risk assessment or depressive symptoms or school refusal.

CHATTERJEE: And many kids end up in hospital emergency rooms because they’re in crisis and have nowhere to turn for help.

Earlier this fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Association of Children’s Hospitals and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry called the situation a national emergency. The US surgeon general drew attention to the issue this month in an advisory on youth mental health. Heidi Baskfield is vice president of population health and advocacy at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

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HEIDI BASKFIELD: Our emergency room admissions for mental health visits have increased by 75%. Every day in our emergency departments, between 15 and 40 children with mental health needs seek care.

CHATTERJEE: Speaking at a virtual congressional briefing last week, Baskfield said the situation was untenable.

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BASKFIELD: We are still fully booked with all of our mental health units. Our outpatient visits have gone from waiting three weeks to sometimes more than nine months. And if you can imagine being a parent with a child who has mental health needs calling for support and basically being informed, call us back a year from now.

CHATTERJEE: Now, the increase in children’s mental health symptoms didn’t start with the school year. In fact, recent studies show that the pandemic has exacerbated an already growing youth mental health crisis. But the situation has only gotten worse in recent months.

TAMI BENTON: And a lot of that has to do with the stress of going back to school for a lot of kids.

CHATTERJEE: Dr. Tami Benton is chief psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She says the children lost friendships during the pandemic and lost a year of social development.

BENTON: The year they left school was a year where they didn’t have the opportunity to develop the social skills that normally occur. And you are making up for all of this under extraordinary circumstances.

CHATTERJEE: But, says Benton, catching up has been harder for some kids than others — kids who relied on in-person support at school, who disappeared with virtual learning, and they’ve fallen far behind their peers, also children who had a mental health diagnosis before the pandemic.

BENTON: A lot of people have delayed services. So by the time they sought mental health treatment, their condition had actually worsened. For some of those kids who actually had pretty strong peer support groups before the pandemic, they had to re-establish them when they got back to school.

CHATTERJEE: Then there are children mourning the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. It is estimated that more than 175,000 have lost a parent or caregiver. And children of color, who are already disadvantaged, have been disproportionately affected by these losses, says Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite.

NICOLE CHRISTIAN-BRATHWAITE: And that trauma alone is very important, especially when there are children who have lost generations of family members.

CHATTERJEE: Christian-Brathwaite is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Array Behavioral Health (ph), a telepsychiatry society. She says these children often try to cope without adequate support.

CHRISTIAN-BRATHWAITE: Going to school and having to deal with that stress without necessarily having a therapist available or a school counselor or a nurse — in many underserved communities, some schools don’t have mental health supports. And some schools have a counselor spread across an entire district.

CHATTERJEE: That’s why schools across the country have reached out to mental health workers and advocates for help. In many places, schools and providers are working together to connect kids to care faster before things get out of hand. And there has been federal funding helping schools add more resources to meet increased demand, including Millis Public Schools in Massachusetts. Again Superintendent Bob Mullaney.

MULLANEY: The CARES Act and the US Rescue Act provided us with funds to hire our own counselors and social workers.

CHATTERJEE: But he’s already worried, what if the funding goes away next year?

MULLANEY: You know, we have to find a way to continue these services because it’s not going to happen in a year.

CHATTERJEE: The mental health toll of the pandemic on the country’s young people will likely persist for a long time.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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