Mental health professionals encourage parents to check in on their children’s mental and emotional well being during the pandemic. (Metro Creative Images)

It goes without saying that students are tired of COVID-19.

They’re tired of masking, tired of not seeing their friends, tired of distance learning and tired of not going places closed due to health and safety guidelines. For many students and parents, the coronavirus just adds another layer to pre-existing stressors and challenges. Whatever the circumstances of each unique household or school, COVID-19’s impact on students’ mental health is something counselors and social workers continue to address.

The mental health crisis in children and young adults isn’t unique to the region. According to a Center for Promise at America’s Promise Alliance, 30% of the 3,300 13- to 19-year-olds surveyed said they have been unhappy or depressed more often than usual, and around that same number worry about having their basic needs met.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also reported an increase in the proportion of children’s mental health-related emergency department visits from April to October. Compared to 2019, the mental health-related visits for children 5 to 11 increased by 24% and visits for children 12 to 17 increased by 31%.

In response to these startling statistics, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) urged the National Institute of Mental Health to prioritize research on the pandemic’s short-term and long-term effects on the mental health of children and young adults. The Dec. 3 letter, which Klobuchar and her colleagues addressed to NIMH Director Joshua Gordon, also asks if the agency will explore increased use of social media as a possible link to mental health concerns.

School Counselor Shane Roessler recognizes COVID-19’s impact on students’ mental health is “all over the board.”

At the Faribault Area Learning Center, where she works, many of the students work 30 to 40 hours a week on top of juggling school, which was already taxing prior to the pandemic. Some struggled with school even before COVID-19, and online classes pose an even bigger challenge. Like adults, students are tired of dealing with high levels of stress that come with being in a pandemic.

They might have siblings to look after while completing school work, they might lack parental support during the day or at all, and they may have given up on school. The hands-on classes, extra curricular activities and in-person friendships that motivated them to attend school are gone, so they may struggle to find a new motivator.

“It’s important we get a message out to everyone that it’s a normal response to not function like usual, and we can do our best with what we have and be OK,” Roessler said. “... We truly are in the middle of something we’ve never been in before. To ask for help is perfect because we’re all in this together, and we can create those human chains to go out and rescue someone who feels like they’re drowning.”

Today’s teens

It's no surprise then that school counselors are seeing increased need for support services. At St. Peter High School, Counselor Maggie Carlson said that one of the most common issues is students finding the motivation to turn in assignments and keep up with school work.

"I don't think anyone is surprised that teenagers struggle to manage their learning independently," said Carlson. "The teenage brain isn't yet fully developed. It is encouraging that many students are able to manage this, and we have been working with others to practice these time management skills. Teachers are also finding creative ways to really build on those relationships with all of their students."

When it comes to academics, Roessler said students are more likely to drop off the board during distance learning. Students at the ALC, many of whom already struggle with learning in a traditional classroom setting, find distance learning difficult and stop signing on and completing assignments as a result of feeling discouraged. Despite teachers’ best efforts to call and reach out, Roessler said students feel guilty for failing, and continue the cycle of not showing up.

As a counselor, Roessler admitted she feels overwhelmed by the number of students who have gone missing. The school doesn’t want to lose students, and teachers will knock on doors if they have to, so she hopes students understand someone cares for them.

“I think the best thing we can do for our students is to give them the grace and the space to find themselves again,” Roessler said. “… Start focusing on what they have done and not what they haven’t done.”

“Falling behind” has new meaning during a pandemic. Since COVID-19 is a national issue, expectations for high school students is different than previous years.

"Students aren't necessarily 'falling behind,' they are exactly where they should be," said St. Peter's Carlson. "We never expected a pandemic to occur and we are learning a lot from it. With that, we haven't been able to teach everything that we wanted in the way that we had originally planned. Everyone is adapting. Many students are able to follow and work this way but also, many are having some struggles.

Carlson added that many students are thriving in distance learning. While mental health issues are on the rise, Carlson said the problems stem from a variety of reasons and not just distance learning.

Academics aside, the pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of activities synonymous with the high school experience, like homecoming and prom. But Roessler has observed two “camps” of parents in terms of their response to these cancellations. While some downplay the importance of these rites of passage, insisting “it could be worse,” others grieve the cancellations as their own losses, causing their children to feel more distressed.

Roessler encourages parents to meet the child where they’re at and “don’t add grief on top of grief.”

As a parent of two teenagers, Roessler said, “I think the big thing we as parents have to remember is that it’s OK to not have the answers and not have the fix and just be with our children and keep our eyes open for major changes.”

Younger students

No matter their young age, elementary school children are not exempt from the mental health impacts of COVID-19. Kristian Pfarr, a K-5 counselor at Le Sueur-Henderson, said the pandemic has impacted students and their families in a variety of ways.

"I think for kids for whom home life is unstable, whether it's their housing situation or parents are working, I think home life is then stressful, because parents are also trying to do the school work or help facilitate that," said Pfarr. "Especially for elementary kids, if they’re not sure how to do the technology. Households are stressed right now, and you have some of them where parents are stressed because they lost their job. There’s a lot of added stress at home that spills over to the students and their academics too."

Some of the most frequent problems for elementary students is motivation, said Pfarr. Self-motivation can already be challenging at a young age and when kids have the choice between logging into Zoom or picking up a video game, some may end up choosing the latter.

Technology can be an obstacle as well. Younger children often don't have as solid grasp on online learning as older kids and parents might not know how to address the issue either. 

With the added challenges of the pandemic on learning and mental health, Pfarr is spending more time on individual meetings and home visits with students. In the past, Pfarr has worked a lot more with students in group and classroom settings, but with more students not showing up to online classes the counselor has focused more on students that teachers have reported concerns about.

These sessions often include a one-on-one visit where Pfarr tries to address the issue whether its related to mental health and stress or technology access. Her office has also developed individualized checklists for families and holding individualized Zoom meetings with kids to offer them encouragement.

Though the pandemic continues to be taxing on student's mental health, Pfarr observed less stress than when distance learning debuted in Minnesota schools in the spring. Back then, everything was closed at once, which meant kids had nowhere to socialize, not even school. But now, kids have alternatives and that's helping with the academics, said Pfarr.

"They’re still able to go to the mall," she said. "They had sports for awhile, and then they were taken away, but it sounds like those are going to start back up. They’ve had a few different outlets besides school, so I would say this time is a little bit easier."

Coping skills

With the pandemic changing so much for students, counselors and social workers are putting a greater focus on helping kids adapt to this new reality and teaching them coping skills. 

At St. Peter High School, Carlson has used personal learning plan time with all students to run through ideas for coping mechanisms. Some of those suggestions include physical exercise, breathing exercises, positive social interactions, laughter and creative expression. The school website also offers a virtual calming room to all students.

"Every school day at the high school, we offer walk-in appointments where someone from Student Services is available to chat," said Carlson. "We all keep reminding our students that they got this, that we are here for them and we care about them."

Parents can also play an important role in helping their kids. Mary Jo Kreitzer, the founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota, said that leading by example is critical for parents at this time, since children often absorb what their parents do more than what their parents say. She also encourages parents to share their own feelings, saying, “It’s OK to be disappointed; I’m disappointed, too.”

Children and adults alike could feel any combination of emotions during the pandemic, not just disappointment and frustration, but grief as a result of losses big and small. That could include loss of job, loss of a person who died during the pandemic, or simply loss of normalcy.

“One of things that is most important is to acknowledge the feeling,” Kreitzer said. “Those are huge emotions to have, and by suppressing feelings, they don’t go away. They sometimes come back and even turn out to be less healthy. Giving people space is important. People process feelings of grief and loss in really different ways. Some people talk, sing, do art, meditation. Besides that, just acknowledging grief alone is really important.”

In the midst of these heavy emotions, Kreitzer encourages searching for positive moments to find meaning and perspective. That could involve asking questions like, “What are some of the lessons being learned?” or “What priorities are emerging?”

“Even within a family, everyone has their own experience of loss and cumulative losses, and you can take it to a work site or a community, or a nation,” Kreitzer said. “It’s affecting all of us. Who knows what the ultimate impact of all of that is going to be? I think what we can do is to say, ‘What’s within our control? How do we take care of ourselves and our families? How do we create wellbeing within this time?’”

Reach Reporter Carson Hughes at 507-931-8575. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All Rights Reserved.

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