Building School-Community Partnerships to Address Youth Mental Health Challenges of COVID-19
The sudden shift to remote-learning due to COVID-19 meant a loss of structure, extracurricular activities, social life, and the celebrations that mark important transitions in the lives of children. The already blurred line between school and home vanished. Remote-working parents struggled as part-time teachers. Educators placed daily wake up calls to disengaged students and frequently responded to their needs well-past the last bell. Student mental health struggles and resource depletion, already evident in recent years, were completely exposed over the past 18 months. The COVID-19 crisis caused a major disruption in the everyday operation of families and schools, placing a spotlight on systemic inequities and a growing mental health crisis. As we enter into a new school year, we should take note of the valuable lessons of the past year and a half.
We quickly realized that schools serve as an essential societal function, where children are cared for, fed and learn vital social and emotional skills, in addition to the 3 Rs. We also learned that more needs to be done to meet the needs of our most fragile children, including those whose families are affected by violence, poverty, mental health and substance abuse challenges. The biggest takeaway, however, is the urgent need to identify key stakeholders and to develop effective partnerships between parents, schools and community mental health resources.
Many parents, having had their own negative experience with public education, maintain a distrust in the system. It is paramount that school professionals approach these parents without judgement, but a sense of compassion, curiosity, and a desire to help. Parents need to be reassured that school mental health professionals have their families best interest in hand. In exchange, we may find a renewed trust that translates to active participation in the development and implementation of intervention plans for their struggling child. Schools must make genuine efforts to ensure that parents are aware of the mental health supports that are available to students, as well as the access points for those services. Most New Jersey schools include the following levels of mental health support:
-Intervention and Referral Services (I&RS) - a multidisciplinary team that assists in the identification of struggling students and will develop intervention plans and/or facilitate refer for further assessment if a disability is suspected.
-Child Study Team (CST) - The CST provides evaluation, therapies, and educational programming for disabled students, including those with mental health challenges.
-Counseling/Guidance Services- School counselors provide counseling, career and post-secondary guidance.
-Student Assistance Program - SAC’s typically provide counseling, substance abuse prevention programming, and community mental health referrals.
A significant barrier to effective partnerships are the antiquated disciplinary practices maintained in public education. These practices compromise trust between students, parents and school professionals, and disproportionately affect non-white students, as well as, those with disabilities and mental health challenges. Now is the time for school districts to closely evaluate existing disciplinary policies, and invest in trauma-informed models that focus on restorative justice. Prevention and early intervention should include the adoption of social emotional learning curricula, providing direct instruction on skills including:
Responsible decision making
Social awareness, and
Schools serve a vital role in the healthy social-emotional development and education of our children, but schools alone cannot fulfill this mission. It is essential that schools partner with local community-based outpatient providers, inpatient and partial hospital programs, as well as county services to provide a web of support for fragile youth. When parents, schools, and community partners find common ground to stand on, we can begin to address the challenges our youth face today.