There is an article in today’s Rockland/Westchester Journal News about the mental health impact of the coronavirus to high school students. The article details some of the traumatic aspects of not being in a school setting with peers and educators. MHANYS has worked hard to address some of these concerns. The information listed below details some of the resources that we are highlighting to students, educators and their families across New York State through the MHANYS School Resource and Training Center at www.mentalhealthednys.org
MHANYS School Mental Health Resource and Training Center is committed to supporting students, families and schools during this time of uncertainty. Over the past few weeks, we have posted new content to our websites to help elevate the conversation about mental health. Some of the information is directly in response to the current situation but all of it illustrates our focus on reducing stigma, supporting mental health of families and communities across NYS, and empowering people to develop their own strategies for coping with stress.
Resources Families and Caregivers, including our Family Education Webinar Series with funding from Mother Cabrini Foundation:
Panel Discussions: Maintaining Mental Health in Schools During Social Distancing:
For a recording of our recent Cyberbullying webinar:
“Let’s Work Together in May” – our Mental Health Awareness month campaign:
Scroll down on the bottom of our homepage at https://mhanys.org for:
“When Challenges Arise, Concepts to Consider”
including a series of three audio recordings, focusing on maintaining human connections and managing challenging during this difficult time
Coronavirus: High school students stressed, sad, confused as dreams get dashed one by one
Sophie Grosserode, Rockland/Westchester Journal NewsPublished 12:13 p.m. ET April 13, 2020 | Updated 12:37 p.m. ET April 13, 2020
Elazia Rodriguez has been daydreaming about senior prom since she was 10 and first read about it in a book. Cameron Harney was supposed to play defense in her first season of varsity lacrosse. Charlotte Hogan only sang through five rehearsals of her anticipated senior musical. After working his way up the student government ladder, Ryan Burton was slated to give the class president’s speech at his graduation.
Those dreams and goals are on hold, and could be erased, for these high school students and so many like them. Students left in the lurch by the coronavirus have little to distract them from the uncertainty besides sleep and schoolwork.
Many of them say it’s taking a toll on their mental health.
“It keeps hitting you, with each new thing that you realize is either canceled or postponed or changed,” said Ethan Karas, a senior at Fox Lane in Bedford. “I mean, relatively speaking, it’s not the end of the world….but it still hurts.”
If everything was simply canceled, Karas said he would feel better. Having hope that the semester will be salvaged is worse, in his mind, because it delays getting over the likely disappointment.
In the meantime, it’s hard for Karas and his friends to focus on going through the motions of academic work.
Elazia Rodriguez, a senior at Saunders High School in Yonkers, said the stress of the coronavirus keeps hitting closer to home. Her friend’s grandparents are sick. Other friends are stressed because they’ve lost their part-time jobs, and deposits for college are due.
Rodriguez, normally a model student, has missed assignments since online school began because she finds the online system confusing. Her sleep pattern is out of whack. She grocery shops for her family, and it’s scary to be out. But home doesn’t feel much better.
“I don’t like to be cooped up at home,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like it’s really affecting my mental health.”
Kids around the region are reporting similar disruptions. Many sleep until the evening and stay up all night. They feel anxious and lethargic, and are unmotivated to do schoolwork. They miss their friends and their routine.
They’re worried about what will be taken away next.
Reaching out for help
“The irony is that kids, at least the kids that I’ve been seeing, spend most of their days trying to get out of school,” said Leroy Ennis, director of Westchester Jewish Community Services’ mental health clinics in the Yonkers schools. “Now school’s out of session, and they want to go back.”
Ennis’ clinics are still providing telehealth services to their patients. One thing that concerns him is a rise in young people who are isolating themselves emotionally.
“We’ve got parents saying [kids] won’t come out of their room. They won’t speak with the family,” Ennis said. “We’re seeing kids who normally socialize very well become disconnected.”
Social isolation and increased stress put children and teenagers at risk for mental health issues like depression and anxiety. For students who have already struggled with those things, the risk is worse.
Even though school buildings are closed, counselors and support staff are still available to support students over the phone.
Donna Martuge is the school psychologist for the Integrated Support Program at White Plains High School. She works daily with a group of 27 students who have struggled emotionally with more serious issues, including eating disorders or suicide attempts.
Martuge touches base with most of her students and their families every day. In a uniquely stressful time like this, many mechanisms she goes over with them are the basics.
“I’m not looking for them to be on a schedule, but I want to make sure they’re taking a shower, that they’re getting dressed, they’re putting food in their body,” Martuge said. “A lot of it is just helping them maneuver their way through the day, which is different for each and every student.”
Since schools closed, both Martuge and Ennis have had new students referred to them by their districts. They both see this as a positive thing. It means teachers and parents are watching for signs that kids might need help handling the situation.
Common warning signs of deteriorating mental health include changes in sleeping and eating patterns, increased irritability, and physical complaints such as headaches.
But experts also say parents should trust their gut, because they know the children best.
“What’s out-of-the-ordinary for your child?” Kristel Halton, a social worker at Mahopac High School, said. “Are they really showing disinterest in things that they liked? Are they just shutting down? You as a parent are going to know that. And if they are, then find us.”
The usual guidance is to raise the alarm if you notice behavioral changes for two weeks or more, Martuge said. But lately, she tells her parents to let her know right away.
School districts are relying on staff, like always, to identify students who may need intervention, Lakeland Superintendent George Stone said.
“They need to have a connection with an adult in the school district,” Stone said. “Obviously there are teachers. Coaches are huge at this point, club advisers, and they’re reaching out as well.”
Keeping on track
In the midst of all the disruption, and anxiety, students still have schoolwork to complete remotely. They are facing it in very different ways.
Ryan Burton, a senior at Pleasantville High School, said he’s grateful for the structure of online school. He wasn’t particularly upset when spring break was cancelled, because “What would I do with myself for a whole week?”
But others find it hard to take school seriously in the midst of a global crisis.
“I don’t care about Hamlet when there’s hundreds of thousands of people sick and dying,” Ethan Karas said. “It just doesn’t feel important.”
Pam Harney, a Pound Ridge mom with three children at Fox Lane, has faced a similar sentiment from her 12th-grade son Sam when she’s addressed his nocturnal schedule.
“I’ve tried talking to him like, ‘Hey, instead of staying up until five, go to bed at two.’ He says, ‘I could but why? What’s the point?’,” Harney said.
Harney’s twin daughters, Caitlin and Cameron, are juniors. Both say their online instruction presents more work than they’ve ever had, and it feels like unnecessary stress.
“I feel like I’m not really learning anything,” Caitlin Harney said.
The issue of how much stress to place on kids academically — how much work should be assigned and how to grade it — is a contentious one in many.
In Lakeland, Stone said they tried to reduce students’ stress about third-quarter grades. All work submitted from when schools closed until April 17 can only improve a student’s standing, not harm it.
But when the fourth quarter begins, they will have to figure something else out.
“We’re trying to continue providing assignments and evaluating work, but their head really isn’t in the game,” Stone said of high school students.
In Elmsford, Superintendent Marc Baiocco said educators are trying to take into account each student and family’s situation, and to be flexible when necessary.
“We need to understand that every family is dealing with this differently, so we can’t operate right now within the parameters of what a typical school day would look like,” Baiocco said. “It may take [students] a week to get assignments to us. We just need to be flexible.”
Baiocco hopes that families will contact teachers and administrators when children are struggling with schoolwork, whatever the reason.
“Our social worker, our school psychologists, our guidance counselors, they’re still doing all of their work,, but we need to know that there’s actually an issue there,” he said.
Looking to the future
Even when schools reopen, educators will need to watch for the lingering effects of this crisis on students’ mental health.
Eva Hecht, a school psychologist who works with students in Mahopac High School’s Academy program, for students who need an alternative setting, said it will be important to talk with the students about what they have been through.
“Instead of just going back to normal, I think we do need some time in the morning to talk about what just happened and check in with each student,” Hecht said. “Just to ease them into it, and to let them know it was unprecedented and they’re gonna be having a bunch of different feelings.”
In the meantime, students need to know that it’s okay to be upset about the way things have changed, even if those changes seem trivial in the scheme of things.
“It’s important for us to validate their disappointment, particularly around sports, the prom, theater productions, graduation,” Marc Baiocco said. “All of those things are weighing on them right now.”
Charlotte Hogan, a senior at New Rochelle High School, said it’s hard for students to know how they are supposed to feel.
“I have friends expressing that they’re sad that they’re not going to have a senior prom, and then adults say ‘Oh, people are dying’,” she said.
“They’re not exclusive. You can be sad that you’re not going to be able to walk at graduation and that people are sick.”