Educators across the state of New Hampshire and nationally are seeing a steady decline in the mental health of their students. A number of encouraging reasons could be given for this ongoing trend, but Sullivan County school staff have found that the ongoing emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is a major contributor to this decline.
“It’s an interesting place where our country, our state and our community is. We’re coming off a pandemic that nobody had the playbook for and we’re managing our way,” Sunapee School District Superintendent Russell Holden said during a call at the community Abbott Library. “Now that that’s over, my teachers tell me, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on, we’re teaching the kids and they know what to do, but they have blank faces.’ The kids were underwater and they hear what we say but it’s muffled and won’t go in. We got them out from under the water and put them in the chair and now they have to remember how to breathe.” The interview was held to determine how school staff could work with the community to provide preventative care in relation to to achieve mental health deterioration.
Mental health experts suggest that developmental delays associated with this pandemic are setting students back years in terms of emotional and behavioral maturity. Given the lack of socialization and the inherent trauma that comes from experiencing a pandemic, teachers find it difficult to engage with students who are operating at a lower social behavior level than their class. These difficulties also appear to be associated with increased feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.
According to youth risk assessments conducted by the Sunapee School District, feelings of hopelessness among students have increased by 10 percent over the past two years, and suicidal thoughts by about 9 percent. The number of students who reported having a plan to harm themselves as part of their risk assessment increased by 3 percent.
Unfortunately, these discoveries are consistent with national trends as the CDC has reported the outcomes of mental health crises over the past decade. The youth risk assessment trends between 2009 and 2019 show a slowly increasing trend of both hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. Information gathered on the ground shows that the pandemic has exacerbated these numbers.
There are a number of other incredibly important aspects when considering a student’s emotional wellbeing that contribute to their ability to receive a competent education. Issues related to a family unit that is no longer housing and in need of financial support can often result in a student not eating, sleeping and experiencing increased stress levels.
While some more financially sound communities like Sunapee, where the median household income is $99,941, offer a range of programs for at-risk youth and families, other local school districts like Claremont have mostly one staffer.
Courtney Porter has worked as her social worker to take care of meeting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for students.
“We know that if we don’t meet these other really, incredibly important needs, kids really struggle to learn. How do you work and understand what’s happening in math when you have to focus on whether or not you have a coat or shoes?” Porter told the Eagle Times earlier this year.
In response to what school administrators saw as a rise in mental health problems causing students to get into trouble, Claremont took a restorative justice approach to rethink outdated methods of punishment. According to aggregate data sent by the school district, this method appears to have been effective as the number of suspension days served by Claremont students decreased by 211.
“We want students to meet in like-minded groups to create a real sense of community. We also want these students to be educated about their behavior and learn to manage their emotions better. They will also meet with the offended party, as appropriate, and discuss ways in which they both feel heard and their security needs are met,” Claremont Principal Christopher Pratt said, referring to the form of restorative justice the school has taken .
Another key focus for all schools in the area trying to address the problem has been building relationships between students and staff. According to school administrators in every district, the most important thing you can do to help each student develop good relationships with the educators is to make them feel safe enough to take their concerns to an adult.
“It’s not about the money or the programs, it’s about talking to students and building relationships. You can’t do things like that with high teacher turnover rates because when they’re gone you’re back to square one,” Pratt said, noting the high teacher turnover rates at some schools in the area.
School districts such as Newport and Claremont have faced this problem for a number of years and have since been referred to as “training schools” for young teachers who move to more affluent school districts for higher salaries.
“In some cases it’s a tough decision for these young teachers when there’s just one other city paying five to six thousand dollars more a year than we do, but I understand it because a lot of them have families to support,” the Newport Superintendent said Donna Magoon on changing teachers. “However, we are trying to change that perception. We’ve hired a lot of really good staff, and many of the staff that we have are dedicated and long-serving in the school district. The new teachers jump right in and build relationships with the kids, and that’s tremendous. Another thing is that a lot of teachers live here in Newport and are committed to their community.”
Claremont has also sought to address this issue, attempting to pass a $1 million teacher contract in its forthcoming budget to make its salaries more competitive compared to other schools in the area.
Despite the schools’ socio-economic differences, the intention is always the same, with the students’ welfare always being the primary concern. Some schools have implemented software that will alert school administrators if a student searches for keywords related to suicide or self-harm and will be able to alert appropriate crisis response teams to these issues. Other schools have taken a wide-net approach with school-wide assemblies as they await federal grants to take a more individualized approach to each student’s needs.
Regardless of the methods each school district uses to address mental health issues, addressing these issues remains the most important decision a school district can make.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of harming or killing yourself, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 988 or the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.