Schools stare down teen mental health crisis as they prepare for largely virtual year

Fifteen percent of students aged 12 to 18 reported that they were bullied online or by text message. Bills in the Pa. House and Senate aim to fight it (Photo via pxHere.com)

Pennsylvania schools have retrofitted buildings and overhauled class schedules to protect public health this fall – but they’ve said less about how they’ll support their students’ mental health, even though state and federal data show that young people are increasingly contemplating suicide and self harm. 

Reports of suicidal threats and self-harm tendencies among Pennsylvania school children shot up after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools to close in March, new data from the state Attorney General show. 

The state’s Safe2Say hotline, which was created in the wake of the 2018 Parkland, Fla. school shooting to field threats of student violence, saw the number of tips related to suicide and suicidal ideation rise by 18 percent during the 2019-2020 school year compared to the year prior, according to a report published this month by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office oversees the program.

Consistent with last year, concerns about bullying and cyberbullying were the dominant source of tips to the Safe2Say hotline. Calls related to suicide constituted the second-largest share of tips, followed by reports of cutting and self-harm. 

The overall share of tips related to suicide and self-harm, however, more than doubled once schools closed statewide in March. 

They constituted 17 percent of all tips to Safe2Say between July 2019 and March 2020, and spiked to 37 percent of all tips after March 13, according to the report. 

Source: Safe2Say report
Source: Safe2Say report

Federal data suggest that the troubling trend isn’t unique to Pennsylvania: a survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week found that a quarter of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 – a cohort that includes high school seniors and recent graduates – had contemplated suicide in the month of June. 

Adolescent mental health experts say the figures are barely surprising, given the near-total social isolation many young people experienced as COVID-19 wrought illness, job loss and death in their communities. 

“Kids receive a lot of support from schools and from peers, and those support channels were cut off,” said David Lillenstein, president of the Association of School Psychologists of Pennsylvania. “They’re left feeling isolated and alone to confront their challenges, and that’s scary.”

Llillenstein and other pediatric health experts point out that the desire to reopen classrooms this fall is motivated by concerns about child health and welfare as much as it is about academics. 

Psychologists and pediatricians say children learn and develop best in schools, where they can socialize with peers under the eye of watchful adults. 

But, confronted with a failing national testing infrastructure and pressure from teachers unions and some parents, many districts have decided to start the school year online with hopes of eventually resuming in-person instruction.

The state has largely left it up to schools to determine how to support their students’ mental health, resulting in patchwork of resources that may prove inaccessible for children who have unreliable internet access, or who rely on referrals from adults in school to access treatment. 

“There has to be a much stronger line about what we expect [schools] to do,” said Nick Ospa, an organizer with Youth United for Change, a youth-led advocacy group in Philadelphia.

Children in suburban districts such as Derry Township in Dauphin County, are among the lucky ones. 

The district near Harrisburg has trained all of its teachers in trauma intervention methods, and will devote one class period each day to help students process the way COVID-19 has affected their schools, homes and communities.

“We’re trying to teach students relaxation strategies so if they’re stressed out or anxious, they’ll have coping strategies,” said Llillenstein, who also serves as a school psychologist in Derry Township. “We’re trying to emphasize that it’s okay to need help.”

But not all schools have the resources to roll out universal programs for staff and students. 

Many schools contract with behavioral health firms to provide counseling to vulnerable students, which can offer telehealth appointments. But elected officials and advocates are worried they won’t be able to replicate their services online, or to reach all the children who may need support. 

Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, pointed out that group-based therapy practices have had to curtail their in-school offerings to comply with state social distancing guidelines. 

The closure of one such facility in his western Pennsylvania district is poised to leave “an entire subset of my population in my district [without] mental health treatment,” Langerholc said Tuesday, during a joint hearing of the House and Senate Education Committees. “God knows what’s going to happen to those kids.”

In Philadelphia, COVID-19 scrambled an effort to create a district-wide, five-year mental health plan for schools. And while the district has published a plan to support social and emotional learning this fall, Ospa said it was “milquetoast.”

“It’s better than not saying anything, but it doesn’t seem to have a lot of substance,” Ospa said.

Ospa said virtual learning is already poised to exacerbate academic inequities in Pennsylvania’s public schools. To prevent it from wreaking a mental health crisis as well, he said, schools leaders and educators should consider how they inflame stress and anxiety for students. 

That may mean limiting testing to relieve student stress, or giving students flexibility in their online class schedules if they have to share internet connections with family members. 

If school leaders act proactively to minimize stress and anxiety for students, they won’t have to provide as many services to respond to mental health needs, Ospa said. 

“There needs to be a culture shift in how schools relate to young people,” Ospa said, echoing a view his organization has held since before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Schools need to take accountability that they cause much more harm than we need, and that contributes to a bloated sense of need [for mental health services.]”