As students return to campus after a year of lockdown and isolation, youth mental health will be a paramount concern.
As Los Angeles Unified and other local school districts reopen, the question becomes, “What comes after COVID?”
“We can’t carry on as if the past year hasn’t happened,” says Maryjane Puffer, executive director of The Los Angeles Trust for Children’s Health. A year of isolation, economic and food insecurity, distance learning and delayed healthcare have created a crisis for hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles County public school students — one that will not disappear when in-person learning starts later next month.
Existing healthcare systems, like the 16 LAUSD Student and Family Wellness Centers offering mental health services to schools and communities hardest hit by COVID, will play an important role in the post-COVID recovery process. So will programs like The L.A. Trust’s Student Mental Health Initiative ramping up this year.
Wellness Centers key
“School wellness centers could be an answer to soaring mental health needs in California,” according to a report — “Every Young Heart and Mind: Schools as Centers of Wellness” — released last December by the California Mental Health Service Oversight & Accountability Commission. According to the report, 1 in 6 high school students in California has considered suicide in the past year, and 1 in 3 report feeling chronically sad. LGBTQ students and low-income Black and Latinx students experienced higher rates in both categories and were less likely to receive services intended to help them, the report said.
The American Psychological Association recommends teachers use existing processes and referral protocols to identify students who need extra support — especially those suffering anxiety and depression, which can be hard to identify under the best of circumstances.
Youth Mental Health First Aid
Teachers, counselors and healthcare professionals are not the only ones who can help. The L.A. Trust staff was trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) last fall and is sharing its knowledge with after-school providers and others.
The first YMHFA class of 20 after–school providers was held online March 12. “The participants were eager for the information and the feedback was very enthusiastic,” said Eddie Hu, program manager at The L.A. Trust. “Mental health is an urgent issue and this training curriculum is timely and compelling.”
The Youth Mental First Aid training will be expanded later to include members of The L.A. Trust’s Student Advisory Boards and other students on L.A. Unified campuses.
“People who work with students — and students themselves — need to be aware of the danger signs of suicide and self-harm,” said Hu. “The crisis is real — without training we can miss the red flags.”
YMFA training is part of The L.A. Trust’s Student Mental Health Initiative, a multi-pronged effort funded by Health Net, Cedars-Sinai, Dignity Health and Ballmer Group. It includes a Youth Mental Health Collaborative launching this month, made up of LAUSD leaders, Wellness Center staff, and community mental health organizations to identify and resolve obstacles to care. Student input will be a key component informing the group’s work. The group will also advocate for needed policy change at the district and county level.
The state of student mental health in Los Angeles Unified School District was acute even before the pandemic. In a screening of 572 LAUSD students, 88% reported experiencing three or more traumatic events in their lifetime, 55% of whom showed symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety. LAUSD recorded 7,661 suicidal ideation incident reports in the 2018-2019 school year.
Time will tell how much damage has been wrought by a year of lost education, healthcare and outside contact and support. The pandemic of trauma caused by COVID-19 will be felt for years according to the National Education Association, which states “the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color has magnified the trauma of Black and Latinx students.”
“Teaching and learning can’t just pick up where educators and students left off,” the NEA observes. Trauma-informed policies and care are critical. ”Moving forward with grief or loss is better than just moving on.”