The Other Pandemic: Students Isolated from Mental-Health Support of School

As school districts across Michigan evaluate whether to stay with or switch to remote, in-school, or a hybrid education model, one large factor continues to be the mental health of students participating in remote learning.

The multiple challenges of the pandemic – illness, isolation, lockdowns, family job losses – are contributing to anxiety and depression at a time when many students have lost access to their main source of support: school.


What schools offer

Schools provide safety, stability, and connectedness for students. This type of environment is associated with lower levels of depression, thoughts about suicide and social anxiety. A longitudinal study of adolescents found school to be especially protective for students who had lower connectedness in other facets of their lives, such as their homes.

Schools can also be the only place students receive care for mental health. Among students 9-17, an estimated 21 percent or more experience some type of mental health condition, yet only 16 percent receive any treatment. Of those students who do receive treatment, 70 to 80 percent receive the care in a school setting.


The double impact of COVID-19

In addition to its threat to physical health, the pandemic has exacerbated the mental health needs of students and their parents. An American Academy of Pediatrics study showed the frequency of daily negative moods among parents and children alike increased significantly during pandemic lockdowns. The increase in negative moods intensified when families experienced crisis-related hardships, including job loss, income loss, illness, etc. The mental health risks associated with the pandemic disproportionally hit children and adolescents who are already disadvantaged and marginalized.

Research shows that low socioeconomic status is a significant risk factor for poor mental health in children. With a lack of guidance on how to develop effective coping mechanisms during the pandemic, at-risk students can adopt dysfunctional strategies to manage their challenges.

As COVID-19 swept across the globe, most research has been done abroad on the effects of the disease and lockdowns on children’s mental health. In China, a study of over 2,000 children showed that after just a month of quarantine, 23 percent of children reported depressive symptoms and 19 percent reported anxiety. The average length of quarantine for these children was 34 days.


Historical context

COVID-19 has hit the economy like no other recession. However, it is possible to glean data that can help us support mental health based on past recessions. In a 2018 paper on the Great Recession, University of Minnesota researcher Ezra Golberstein found that a 5 percentage-point increase in the national unemployment rate correlated with an astounding 35 to 50 percent increase in “clinically meaningful childhood mental health problems”. During COVID-19, we have seen rates of unemployment soar to over 11 percent, with even higher rates for minority populations. This, coupled with a loss in the family or a drastic change in finances, can shape a child’s view of the world.

It also should be noted that, before the pandemic, studies found that anxiety has increased so much that typical school children reported more anxiety than the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s.

As schools prepare to reopen, they should consider ways to help support the children as well as the staff. School employees themselves may have experienced their own personal trauma during the pandemic, which may be made worse by the strain of supporting their students experiencing stress. Nearly 60 percent of schools do not provide mental health services, which means that responsibility often falls back on teachers.

Innovation during COVID-19

Fortunately, technology offers promising support for monitoring the emotional health of students.

MAVIN is a free career exploration tool, founded through MAVIN Global and supported in collaboration with Muskegon ISD, the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, University of Michigan TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students) and various stakeholders across the state. The platform is increasingly being adopted by districts across West Michigan.

Before entering the school or starting remote classes, students answer questions through the MAVIN platform about their emotional health by selecting emojis that symbolize a multitude of emotions. Choosing from a variety of characters of diverse races and ethnicities, students select the emoji that best describes how they are feeling, rating it on a 1-10 scale.

Counselors take time throughout the week to review the student’s emotions. They can reach out to students based on the patterns that surface. Students also are able to send private messages to counselors if they are struggling with intense emotions.

Undoubtedly, the mental health of students from pre-K to high school has suffered as a result of the pandemic and has to be a factor when determining how soon schools return to in-school learning. Platforms like MAVIN and other strategies can help meet students emotional health.


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