The pressure to “return to normal” led to more anxiety among students, advisers say

Expectations of “returning to normal” this school year have exacerbated students’ anxiety, depression and other mental health needs, which had already increased following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, school advisers said during a virtual panel organized by the Latino Mental Health Association Health of New Jersey.

Counselors and other mental health professionals who are part of the state’s school-based youth service program — which hires nonprofits to provide these services in host schools — gathered virtually Thursday to share their efforts and struggles to reintegrate students two years after the pandemic started discussing.

Although anxiety and depression have increased among their students, counselors find hope in face-to-face contact with their students, less stigma at school when it comes to seeking help, and sharing resources and tips with their peers.

Many students, they say, find it difficult to follow basic rules and expectations this school year, such as: For example, wearing a uniform all day, showing up to class on time, and getting chores done. Behind these behaviors are students struggling with anxiety, chronic stress and depression.

In 2020 and 2021, students experienced “fight or flight mode” as schools transitioned to distance learning for 18 months, said Giselle Fontalvo, a school counselor at Passaic Public Schools who led the virtual meetup. Then the 2021-2022 school year “became all about survival” as in-person learning returned in the face of an ongoing mask-and-COVID-testing pandemic, she added.

But in this school year, with limited housing and no distance learning option, students are in for a shock as they face another transition — a “return to normal” — and it’s affecting their mental well-being, Fontalvo said.

“You have to be at school on time every day and you can’t get up five minutes before school starts to log on to a computer,” Fontalvo said. “There’s this sense of shock when students face consequences for being consistently late, like, ‘What do you mean, I have detention? I didn’t get any detentions last year.’”

Pupils’ mental health needs to ‘rise fast’

The pressure on students to perform well academically and socially at school this year has exacerbated their mental health needs more than ever during the pandemic, said Nivioska Bruce, associate vice president of clinical interventions in schools at Care Plus NJ, during the virtual meet.

Her clinical intervention teams conduct “school clearance assessments” on students to assess their risk to themselves or others before sending them to a hospital’s psychiatric emergency services, she said.

In the first three months of school, her team has already “seen so many students” going to the ER because of a high level of risk, Bruce said.

“We’re just realizing that the intensity with which they present themselves is something we’ve never seen before,” she said. “Their mental health needs have increased tremendously. All of the stress of the last two years turned into chronic stress and led to this inability to regulate and utilize healthy coping skills. And now this anxiety and depression is just increasing rapidly.”

Jennesis Quintana, a school-based youth welfare counselor at the Mental Health Clinic of Passaic, has seen her students struggle to don their uniforms and lanyards with student ID cards and complete assignments.

“A lot of them say they have a hard time falling asleep at night and when they wake up they’re exhausted and can’t get out of bed or make it on time,” Quintana said at the virtual meeting.

She said she can tell when her students are going through depression because it often shows in their appearance, something she would have missed in a virtual environment. They will come to school with poor hygiene and a lack of appetite, on top of sleep deprivation, she said.

“These factors then affect how they function overall, how they function throughout the day, and how they interact with one another,” Quintana said.

But, the advisers said, there is room for hope.

“Students are opening up more and more,” Quintana said. “You can see what they’re not saying through their body language and interactions, and you have direct access if they glitch.”

In a phone call Monday, Fontalvo told Chalkbeat that she’s fortunate to work in a predominantly Latinx and Hispanic district where students can reflect on her.

“When my English learners come to me, they say, ‘Oh thank God you speak Spanish,'” she said. “They spend the rest of the day adjusting to the school environment and speaking English, but with that one conversation in Spanish, they have some relief and feel comfortable.”

There’s also “power to be in the moment” with a student when they’re having trouble regulating intense emotions, Fontalvo said.

“You can help them deal with those feelings of anxiety simply by acknowledging their experience and guiding them with helpful steps,” she said. “We can say, ‘Okay, you’re right, it’s a lot. But we still have to work on that and the goal is still to be a great student. How about we take those two minutes to freak out and then we work on our to-do list together.’”

Over the past two years, open dialogue about mental health in schools has reduced the stigma of asking a school counselor or psychologist for help, the counselors said.

“Access to immediate, consistent support and care is the best thing about being in schools,” Bruce said at the virtual meetup. “We know that school-based mental health for many of the students and families who are coming through, this may be the first time they have had access to this type of service, but it is in a place that is familiar and safe and free from stigma is.”

As she spoke to her students about their needs and what would help them deal with the pressures they’re feeling, Quintana said she learned they’d like to start their day with a “mental health break.”

“If they haven’t had a good night’s sleep or have just had an argument with a parent, having a test, project or presentation waiting for them can be overwhelming,” Quintana told her fellow school counselors at the virtual meeting. “Maybe we can build in the first 15-20 minutes of the day as a breather and then start the day.”

Azara Santiago Rivera, president of the Latino Mental Health Association of New Jersey, said in a phone call with Chalkbeat on Friday that she intends to continue these meetings for school counselors to share their experiences and resources, particularly those working in predominantly Latino communities and color communities.

“At a time when we are seeing an increase in the serious mental health needs of students, we are also seeing a shortage of mental health professionals,” Santiago Rivera said. “This is the time to share ideas, resources and strategy and create a safe space for our professionals.”

Catherine Carrera is Chalkbeat Newark’s office manager, responsible for the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English learners. Contact Catherine at [email protected].