According to a 2019 survey from the Centers for Disease Control, approximately one in five youths reported they’d seriously considered attempting suicide within the last year, while one in six had actually made a suicide plan, and one in 11 had made an attempt. Since the pandemic began, things have only gotten worse. In 2020 Mental Health America reported an uptick in severe major depression and suicidal ideation among youth. It noted in September 2020 that more than half of 11- to 17-year-olds reported they had experienced frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm in the last two weeks. Other statistics are equally alarming.
Simply put, this pandemic has pushed stress levels of many youth to the breaking point. There are many contributing factors, such as isolation from peers, concern about loved ones getting sick, family financial issues such as job losses, and stress from navigating distance learning.
Then there are the situations in which child abuse and exploitation occur. During the early months of the pandemic, for example, child abuse complaints dropped, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. That’s not because abuse and exploitation issues were down. Just the opposite–the abuse was unreported because it wasn’t being seen by those who would typically catch it.
Teachers and school staff are often a first line of defense to report abuse and identify and support students who are dealing with stress and anxiety, because they are with the student all week and often see the telltale signs of a problem. For instance, is the student suddenly withdrawn from friends? Have they stopped eating at lunch? Are they suddenly lacking proper hygiene? But during the pandemic, in many cases teachers aren’t seeing the students as often, if at all, in person. This makes it more difficult for them to detect potential problems, but it doesn’t make it impossible.
There are certain things teachers can watch for. In the eBook“Supporting Student Mental Health and Safety during Remote Learning,” experts noted these behaviors could be cause for concern:
- Increasingly withdrawn behavior. Has a student who typically participates a lot in class suddenly stopped? If so, this could be a sign that there is something more going on.
- Increased attention-seeking behavior. A student who typically is very respectful of the rules of an online environment is increasingly engaging in behavior that requires the teacher’s attention. It might be as simple as clicking their mute button on and off during a lesson or dressing inappropriately when on camera.
- Significant changes in attendance, or suddenly wanting to keep their video off when they previously had it on.
To support students, teachers can schedule one-on-one virtual check-ins to see how students are doing. They can also provide their contact information and make sure students know they can reach out if they need to talk. Some schools use technology that allows staff to monitor students’ online activity and teachers to report concerns. A free tool called back:drop lets teachers track and record wellbeing information and concerns. Teachers can take advantage of tools like this if they’re available to keep tabs on potential issues and intervene if needed. Mental Health America also has a toolkit with tips to support students’ mental health.
The long-term impact of the pandemic in terms of students’ mental health is yet to be seen. In the short term however, teachers and school staff can help students weather the storm by keeping an eye on how students are behaving online, and by taking advantage of the resources mentioned above. These tools and practices can help teachers continue to be that first line of defense.
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