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Back to in-person learning, many students face mental health struggle

Educators and school staff are now facing new challenges born of the pandemic: helping kids build up their mental health, and relearn social skills. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Mental health counselors and administrators in Harrisonburg City and Rockingham County Public Schools have some similar refrains about their students these days.

LORA CANTWELL: … things that should have happened in middle school are perhaps happening at the high school level now … 

ANA ARIAS:  … they're in second grade and they're having behaviors that you wouldn't expect a second grader to have … 

DONNA ABERNATHY: … It's almost like our ninth graders are still stuck in like seventh grade.

The psychological effects of quarantine, isolation, and virtual learning on students became readily apparent this fall, when most kids returned to classrooms full time. April Howard, chief officer for student support in Harrisonburg, said that it's taken a village to meet the demand for services. 

Credit Randi B. Hagi
April Howardis chief officer for student support in Harrisonburg.

APRIL HOWARD: I would say that we have seen an increase in supports needed across the board, and that is where we are fortunate in Harrisonburg City Schools to have a robust student support team that includes behavioral specialists, school counselors, mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists, and so we really work together as a team.

For the most part, the issues depend on the students' age level. Ana Arias is a mental health counselor for the elementary schools in Harrisonburg. 

ANA ARIAS: At the elementary level, we see more behavioral disruptions, because if you don't have structure you can count on, if you just have a world that is still whirling in chaos because nobody knows what's safe and what's not safe, then little kids are not going to know how to process that cognitively.

Credit Tammy May
Tammy May, principal of Lacey Springs Elementary School.

Tammy May, principal of Lacey Spring Elementary School, said some of her students need additional support from counselors and behavioral specialists, but overall they're doing well.

TAMMY MAY: I think when we came back to school full time … there were some challenges, just, the kids needed to learn how to be together again. They needed to know how to relate to each other again. Have face to face conversations.

For middle and high schoolers, though, more complex relationships and the added pressures of social media can make for a more difficult time returning to school buildings. Jackie Baker is the principal of Montevideo Middle School, and said she's seen more conflict on social media this fall. 

Credit Jackie Baker
Jackie Baker is the principal of Montevideo Middle School.

JACKIE BAKER: I think they've forgotten how to have conversations in person, so they have these conversations online, and yeah I do think that when people are hiding behind a screen, they're more brazen and say things they wouldn't necessarily say in person.

Both Baker and Anna Morris, a mental health counselor in Harrisonburg's middle schools, said their students have been struggling to self-regulate when they have difficult emotions. Morris said students are physically expressing anger and anxiety.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
HCPS counselors from left: Lora Cantwell, Ana Arias, and Anna Morris.

ANNA MORRIS: Like standing up and walking out, or things like that, sort of a physical, visceral feeling of, I don't know what to do with these emotions.

Upperclassmen are mired in more conflict, too. Broadway High School Principal Donna Abernathy said she's also seen a lot of anxiety about crowds and homework.

DONNA ABERNATHY: You're in high school now, and you get lots of different freedoms, and we treat you like young adults, and some struggle with that freedom. Which, we always have some kids that struggle with that anyway, in normal years, but it seems like there's more of that.

Credit Donna Abernathy
Donna Abernathy is the principal at Broadway High School.

In the county, middle and high schoolers' school-issued devices are monitored by a software called Securly. The program watches their emails and Google searches for certain red flags, including language about bullying or self-harm, and then alerts administrators. Baker and Abernathy said they're both getting more of those alerts this year. School staff, including counselors, will then talk with the student about what's going on.

BAKER: Is this something that does need to be addressed? Is this something we need to do a restorative practice between students? Is this something we need to talk to parents [about] because we're worried about a student? That kind of thing. 

The school divisions are responding to these issues in myriad ways: community circles to help students build relationships; meetings with parents; full caseloads for in-house mental health professionals; and partnerships with the local Community Services Board, or CSB, for students who need extra counseling.

Liza Koonin is a child outpatient therapist with the Harrisonburg-Rockingham CSB. She gets a lot of referrals from public schools.

LIZA KOONIN: In the month of November alone, we had double the intakes for mental health services as compared to last November … we're really seeing a rise in the prevalence of anxiety and depression, things like that, as well as increased severity of symptoms across the board. 

One of the trends that most surprised the therapists I spoke with was a rise in psychosomatic issues, including bad stomach pains and sleep disturbances. Here's Arias speaking with Lora Cantwell, the mental health counselor at Harrisonburg High School.

ARIAS: … neurological stuff that we hadn't seen before. So like, tics, like physical tics … some compulsive stuff, like compulsive physiological –

CANTWELL: Repetitive behaviors.

ARIAS  – That we hadn't seen before. I mean we'd seen it, but not in this quantity. A lot of, even, illnesses … 

CANTWELL: It's like, pain, GI issues that they'll go and get explored medically and there's no concrete medical explanation. I think the important thing to understand, too, is, and we've heard this from multiple medical doctors – these pains are very real … it's just connected to the stress that's been placed on the body.

Despite the trends, these officials expressed a lot of hope, too. Abernathy can see the light up ahead.

ABERNATHY: All in all, I do feel like we're kind of turning the corner a little bit, so that makes me feel really good, of trying to get in the swing of things, and understanding expectations … again, we're just excited that the kids are here. This is where they need to be.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.