Mental Health Challenges During First Days 'at School'

Empathy is key for learning during the pandemic.

Jenny M. Burke, J.D., M.S.
August 24, 2020

During this unprecedented back-to-school season, the list of demands for teachers, students and parents is very different from the typical school-supplies list of pens and pencils, and perhaps a new outfit for the first day. Even though things are very different this year, parents are still posting “first day of school” pictures, including a new type of “bell” schedule and a makeshift desk, eager to somehow make that first day seem like the first days of the past.

But this is, in its most basic sense, a First Day. It’s a new set of circumstances for students and teachers – as well as parents and employers. Each is trying to navigate a new, unfamiliar path, every step of the way trying to make it seem like a path that was traveled before.

There is a lot of pressure to try and recreate traditional school days. The crisis model of schooling from last spring is being replaced by school districts doing all they can to create a new normal and, in many cases, enforcing attendance, grading rules and accountability reflecting pre-COVID rules and regulations. On top of that, parents are struggling to keep their jobs and balance the demands of ensuring their children are engaged in school activities all day. Families of children in hybrid models are perhaps struggling with getting kids to school at non-traditional hours. For children who have some sort of specialized educational plan, it means trying to navigate virtual learning without support from school aides that families depended on before.

It is important to remember that this is a tough situation, and we are all learning something new. Empathy – no matter what position you are in – is incredibly important. These are days filled with new “firsts” and should be treated as such.

The mental health and wellbeing of all involved is at risk. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report highlighted these risks, and there are several things to think about in this back-to-school time. According to the report, 11% of adults reported contemplating suicide during the month of June – and rates were even higher among young adults, minorities, essential workers and unpaid caregivers. The report also found that the prevalence of symptoms of depression and anxiety quadrupled and tripled, respectively, compared to last year. In total, 40% of Americans reported some mental health issue or substance abuse related to the pandemic. That includes young people. Of the high-risk groups cited in the report, all of them touch the back-to-school changes in some fashion or another.

According to the CDC, the best way to address this problem is to increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions, with a focus on the highlighted populations. There are many warning signs for emotional distress for children and teens as well as adults.

Support is available, however, and more easily accessible than you might think. First and foremost, remember to show empathy and support for your family, students, coworkers, employees and teachers. Communicate frequently and consistently to check in and see how they’re doing. Many individuals have workplace benefits that are available to entire families, including Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), mental health counseling and other resources.

We are all in a very stressful time right now. Employers as well as families can help lessen the mental health effects during this time, reduce risk for increased substance use and prevent relapse for individuals with current issues. Check out the free mental health webinars this week for employees, leadership, supervisors and HR professionals. Being there for each other, and making sure those at risk know their wellbeing is of the utmost importance, will help us all get through this together, at school or at home, from the workplace to anyplace.

Jenny M. Burke, J.D., M.S.

Jenny Burke formerly served as the Vice President of Workplace Wellbeing solutions was involved with impairment initiatives at NSC.

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