Minnesota schools work to respond to growing student mental health needs

Chancellor Becky Mendoza has students entering her office trembling and anxious. She talks to more teens who are contemplating suicide, and notices more fights erupting. Paul Como Park High School includes a long list of students who, until this year, had never come up with mental health concerns.

As co-chair of the Minnesota Association of School Counselors, she’s echoing the same troubling message: Students’ mental health needs this year are more acute than ever.

“The coping skills and strategies the students have used to survive the past two years outside the school building may have worked with them there,” Mendoza said. But they don’t necessarily work in the classroom. “And that’s when you start seeing more problems.”

School social workers and counselors say this has led to increased bullying, more explosive outbursts, and a widespread increase in disobedience. One suburb saw a threefold increase in the number of students referred to a mental health support team. In some cases, acute mental health crises at the school cause enough disruption and safety concerns to cause building closures.

To make matters worse, students lost opportunities to build social skills and develop emotional maturity during periods of distance learning, said Rachel Hillyar, assistant director of prevention and safety for the Elk River School District.

“If you have a skill shortage or some unresolved trauma, your response may translate into disruptive behaviors,” Hellyar said. “If we don’t have those mental health and social and emotional needs, students won’t be able to learn.”

Schools across the state are using federal funds to invest in student mental health support — adding more counselors and therapists and providing more professional development for staff to support students’ needs. But the widespread staff shortage means some schools are struggling to fill those positions, particularly those of licensed mental health professionals in schools.

Many rural schools still only have one counsellor, tasked with catering to students’ mental health needs while also helping them prepare for academics and college.

Minneapolis Schools recently established a team of mental health support professionals to provide individualized services as well as crisis intervention in schools. City public schools no longer have school resource officers who can help respond to the most serious incidents.

If emergency management and mental health support teams in schools need outside help to deal with a situation, they can call 911 and ask for a responder trained in mental health crises. However, that response time can be long — these programs are understaffed and usually triage calls, said Judy Brown, director of mental health support for the Minneapolis School District.

Brown said schools sometimes close to contain the situation, especially if a student is trying to leave the building. Even in elementary school, she said, students ran out of schools and got into traffic. The goal of any closure is to keep a student safe in a crisis as well as other students safe.

In general, students act faster — their wicks are shorter, and their tolerance of frustration wanes, Brown said.

“The students are really struggling to fit in again in the school buildings,” she said. “We live in a time when there is more anxiety and stress due to the sheer uncertainty of so much in their lives. …People’s emotional thresholds are at their limits.”

Maggie Walker, a student at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, said she has seen that uncertainty breeds anxiety and apathy among her peers, and she feels it too. She said it’s been hard to know what to invest in, because it seems that the changing course of the pandemic could once again squander opportunities and events, such as a long-awaited theatrical performance or even a prom.

Walker saw that few of her peers go from excelling students to reluctant participants who rarely finish a task on time. She said the pressures of catching up with academics might seem like too much.

“Maybe last year we learned how to keep our heads above water but not necessarily how to swim,” Walker said. “I feel like I’m just stepping into the water.”

In addition to creating new jobs and teams for staff, schools across Minnesota are investing in programs to help students develop skills in resilience and coping.

One of these programs, called EmpowerU, is offered online to students in 50 school districts across the state. The curriculum offers personalized lessons on goal setting and ways to overcome challenges.

“We’re putting as many kids into it as we can,” said Carol Hotemeyer, school counselor for Southern Washington County Schools. “I see a lot of students who have a really hard time keeping up and managing stress.”

However, she is encouraged to see more students asking for help. She said the stigma caused by mental health struggles was changing, particularly among young people.

Chantel Vaughn, a social worker at Centennial Elementary School in Richfield, said elementary students may not have the language to describe how they feel.

“Behaviours are the way children express what is happening,” Vaughn said. I’ve seen more and more students behave since the beginning of the school year – tearing up posters on the wall or refusing to go to class. Vaughn is concerned because she spends too much time responding to outbursts, and has less time to do protective work with children.

At Richfield Prep, social worker Joey Corcoran aims to be “as visible and accessible as possible” this year, even serving snacks in his office to encourage students to come over for a quick check-in.

“Students who would have traveled under the radar in a normal school year are really suffering as well,” he said.

Despite the challenges, in St. Paul, Mendoza said she is optimistic — this year highlighting the role of mental health resources within schools, and districts responding.

“The pandemic has put a magnifying glass on these issues in education,” she said. “You really can’t ignore him anymore.”

need help?

If you or a loved one is at risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text MN to 741741.

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