by Terry Rogers
At the August 17 Milford School District Board of Education Meeting, Dr. Laura Manges, Director of Student Services, provided the board with information on mental health services available to students and staff. Dr. Manges explained that over the past few years, the need for additional mental health intervention options has grown and that the current COVID-19 pandemic may increase the need for assistance with mental health.
“We have always had mental health services,” Dr. Manges explained. “Intervention services were already being put in place prior to COVID in order to have extensive options, including additional internal options. There is a school psychologist in every building and at least one counselor in each building. Each building also has a behavior support paraprofessional or a student and family interventionist as well. Our school nurses do an excellent job of helping with mental health services as does our visiting teacher. In addition to internal offerings, we are also working with Delaware Guidance Services, State of Delaware Family Crisis Therapists, People’s Place and contracted psychologists. The Wellness Center at Milford High School is also an excellent resource.”
Dr. Manges explained that young people are wired to rely on peer relationships for support which means it is not surprising that young people are reporting more anxiety than normal during the pandemic. Stacie Smith, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at People’s Place agrees with Dr. Manges.
“Our children are experiencing the same uncertainty and instability we are,” Smith said. “Additionally, for many young people, the lack of socialization has been very difficult. Not having the consistent structure of the school, being unable to see friends, changes in routine, cancelled extracurricular activities and changes in parental care can have a destabilizing effect for young people. It is important that parents and caregivers pay attention to the way they are responding to the pandemic as their children look to them for guidance on how to respond.”
Smith explained that it is impossible to know if keeping schools in a remote learning setting for the beginning of the school year will be detrimental or if it will impact certain age levels more than others.
“The children who were struggling prior to the pandemic will likely be the ones struggling the most during it,” Smith said. “We should be helping children to learn how to cope with adversity and uncertainty in their lives. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidance advocates having students physically present in school. Socialization is a crucial part of child development and remote learning further increases social isolation for children and teens. Regardless of age, social isolation can increase social, emotional and health issues which include physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse, depression and suicidal ideation. Minorities, low income and those with learning disabilities will likely experience these factors with more severity.”
However, Smith pointed out that remote learning was actually a good fit for some students. She explained that children who have consistent support at home to help with academics seem to do much better with remote learning. Unfortunately, Smith stated, even children who have had strong support at home have found remote learning difficult as some children benefit from the support of an in-school environment to be able to learn effectively. Yet, there are also concerns about moving into a hybrid model of education.
“While we are just beginning to see the impact of school reopening in other states, some of our clinicians who work with children and adolescents have been speaking to families on how to best prepare for this shift as the school year approaches in Delaware,” Smith said. “We do not know exactly what it will look like but we can say with certainty it will be very different from what children and teens were used to prior to the pandemic. For some children and adolescents, they are eager to return to school as they miss their friends and teachers. However, others are experiencing an increase in anxiety as they begin to think about returning to school and the uncertainty around the same.”
Much like adults are worried about their increased risk of getting COVID-19 when returning to work, children are having similar experiences, Smith explained. Parents should help prepare their children for the changes that will occur, such as masks, social distancing and other changes. Smith stated that providing information that is age appropriate and teaching children the importance of taking steps to stop the spread are all important conversations to have before starting school.
Milford School District plans to include information about stopping the spread of COVID-19 in both their remote and hybrid learning plan. Students will be provided information on the importance of masks, repeated hand washing and the need to remain six feet apart, all using age appropriate methods. As for mental health options, in addition to the many individuals on and off site, the district offers other resources for parents including websites for families and students, “Kindness in the Classroom” curriculum, trauma-informed practices and curriculum as well as virtual counseling options. Assistance is available in English, Spanish and Creole for English learners as well.
At the meeting, Board member Rony Baltazar-Lopez asked if there were protections in place to prevent bullying, especially cyberbullying since the district was beginning in a fully remote method and would continue to have virtual learning even in the hybrid model.
“We do have a bullying tip line available,” Dr. Jason Peel, Director of Human Resources and School Climate, said. “What we have found works even faster than the hotline is the “Stop It” app that we implemented last year. It has been very successful, providing a direct line to an administrator when someone feels bullied. It worked well in several instances last year. We also have a pretty clear cyberbullying policy and will use it to handle anything that occurs during remote and hybrid learning during the school year.”
Smith suggested that parents look for typical signs that a child is suffering mentally, whether it is due to the pandemic, isolation or bullying. She stated it is important to consult with a doctor or qualified mental health practitioner for an accurate diagnosis.
“Anxiety and depression may present differently in children,” Smith said. “A child displaying a sudden onset of behavioral problems such as anger or irritability may actually be experiencing anxiety. Be careful what you consume on the internet. Google cannot accurately diagnose mental health conditions. Some of the signs to watch for include feelings of sadness, emptiness, hopelessness or crying as well as irritability. Someone who is suffering from depression and anxiety may lose interest in all or almost all daily activities or may seem overly fatigued and lethargic. They may express feelings of worthlessness or feel excessive and inappropriate guilt. Inability to sleep or sleeping too much each day are also signs of anxiety and depression as are unexplained weight loss or weight gain.”
It is important to address mental health issues in both children and adults as they could lead to suicidal thoughts. Some of the red flags for suicidal behavior include bullying, physical or sexual abuse or assault, neglect, chronic medical issues or a lack of supportive adults who are willing and able to create adequate changes in a child’s life. Someone who is suicidal may be impulsive, give away prized possessions or make suicidal statements. Smith stated that suicidal statements should never be ignored.
Anyone who suspects a child or adult is suicidal can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 where they will be routed to the nearest crisis center or the Child Priority Response Hotline at 800-969-4357 for emergency response or text DE to 741741. The Trevor Lifeline is a national crisis intervention and suicide prevention lifeline for LGBTQ young people and can be reached at 866-488-7386. To report bullying, parents or students can call the Delaware Department of Justice Bullying Prevention and Stop Crime tip line at 800-220-5414. There is also a Milford School District Bullying Form or bullying can be reported through the “Stop It” app.