Creating a Plan to Improve Students’ Well-Being in Schools
By Jon Styf
The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the mental health of school-aged children, adding in isolation and fear to an already complicated point in life.
From virtual schooling to separation of students to masking, the many elements to a complex situation all contributed to an environment where more students felt alone or at risk.
Their rates of depression, suicidal thoughts and other problems have increased exponentially while schools have seen increased requests for counseling and a large jump in students seeking mental health assistance outside of school.
So what are metro Atlanta schools doing to combat this epidemic in mental health for students?
Many are adding staff and programming to directly address mental health with students, teachers, staff and parents. Eliminating a stigma related to mental health issues is a key component of that education.
Schools are also teaching students more about the science behind mental health, integrating more study of the nervous system into science classes while also increasing special programming and speakers related to mental health.
“I think everyone is more aware of mental health so kids might seek support more regularly,” says Sara Friedman, director of K-12 counseling at The Lovett School. “We are talking about it more and we’re trying to address it as we would our physical health. We’re trying to get rid of any stigma associated with mental health and knowing that it’s OK to not be OK.”
Woodward Academy is adding a full-time psychologist position to assist students of all grade levels and is also involved in an Emory University study on mental health in schools.
Woodward Academy is adding a fulltime psychologist position to assist students of all grade levels and is also involved in an Emory University study on mental health in schools. The parents of students involved in that study are receiving even more communication on mental health than other parents.
The schools’ philosophy also understands that the first line of positive impact for students is the school’s teaching staff, which interacts with students the most regularly.
“Teacher well-being is a huge component,” says Jennifer Knox, Woodward’s director of character education. “So much of what we’re offering is really recognizing that if our teachers are not well and our teachers are not feeling supported, then that transfers to the classroom. Even though the programs are focusing on skill-building with the students, the way in which those workshops are offered is really centered on teacher well-being as well.”
Public schools are taking stock of how students are doing mentally, in part through the Georgia Student Health Survey from the Georgia Department of Education, which began in 2019. It asks students questions on everything from whether students look forward to attending school to if they are stressed and what factors lead to stress. The 2022 survey of middle and high school students shows that, of more than 386,000 respondents, nearly 128,000 feel stressed sometimes and more than 106,000 feel stressed always.
How You Can Help
What can you do to help your children stay healthy? It starts with the basics: eating and sleeping enough, which are essential for overall healthy living, according to Dr. John Lochridge, a recently retired Atlanta-based child and family psychiatrist.
From there, you should be encouraging more face-to-face interaction and reducing individual screen time. Part of the current mental health crisis is a societal shift from in-person group activities to individual electronics, like phones and tablets.
While that technology can be great for educational purposes, it can also cause issues as it adds to isolation and allows teens to criticize one another more anonymously and not face to face.
“We need to get back in our clubs and our teams and into our group outings, and we really need to work hard at doing new things,” Lochridge says. “Before, it may have been a baseball team. Now, everybody can go to some sort of museum or whatever. I really feel that social interaction is the key, and that is not electronic social interaction. You have got to go outside and play. And you have to go outside and learn, and learn about the world. Get reading, get in the car, get on MARTA and go places.”
Remain Calm and Consistent
Lochridge believes that consistency on everything from bed times to screen-time rules is important. However, he understands, with the upheaval of the past few years for everyone, that could be difficult for you. But the more you can remain calm and consistent, the better it is for your children.
Friedman says it is important how parents respond to stress and anxiety that they see in their children, acknowledging it and that both are normal emotions that cannot and should not be avoided.
“Stress is an unavoidable part of life and one that comes under positive and negative conditions,” she says. “Stress is what happens when we operate at the edge of our capacity. We wouldn’t want children to avoid stress even if they could, because kids build up their capacities when they stretch beyond their comfort zones.”
So it is important to emphasize resilience, understanding that no one will be perfect and that anxious thoughts can lead to overestimating the danger facing us.
Instead, Friedman says, it’s important to acknowledge what the danger really is and then express non-dismissive confidence in their children related to those fears, giving the children confidence that they can combat those fears and excel in spite of them.
A key to helping in a mental crisis is if you can detect the warning signs early. Georgia’s chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness has given presentations on “Ending the Silence” of mental health issues, saying the warning signs can include excessive worry or fear, feeling excessively sad or low, confused thinking or issues concentrating, extreme highs or lows, prolonged feelings of irritability or anger and avoiding friends or social activities.
The better you know your children or interact with them daily, the more you will be able to notice the subtle changes that occur before or during a mental health crisis.
Those issues can also show up in changes in sleep or eating habits, ailments showing up without a clear cause, an inability to complete daily activities and an increased fear of weight gain.
Friedman said that Lovett is partnering with The Westminster Schools for a Behind Happy Faces program to educate about the warning signs of mental health issues and how parents and school staff can identify those issues.
The symptoms can also include changes in performance at school, excessive worrying or avoiding both going to sleep or going to school, hyperactivity, nightmares, an increase in aggression or disobedience and temper tantrums.
Most important is that you remain engaged with your children, listening to them and observing them often to better understand the signs of risk and addressing those risks before they could accelerate.