Bethanie Monsen-Ford: Mental health a subject of concern for Utah students

Returning to school in a time of pandemic puts a strain on students’ mental well-being.

It was a meme before memes were even a thing. Many of us can undoubtedly call to mind the reoccurring scene from “Peanuts” cartoons and comics of Lucy sitting lackadaisically in a handmade wooden booth under a sign offering “Psychiatric Help,” with a lower sign indicating that “The doctor is in.”

I can’t help but juxtapose that comically carefree scene against the current climate of enduring pandemic uncertainty, divisive political rhetoric, climate change and myriad incidents of school violence nationwide. Considering the insufficient ratio of school psychologists to students here in Utah (one to every 2,300 students when one to every 500-700 students is recommended), it’s hard sometimes not to feel that the sign most students, parents and teachers envision today is “The doctor is overbooked.”

It’s often easy to overlook or downplay mental health issues in both our own children and our schools. But, according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in six school-aged children experiences a mental health disorder every year. When schools have a full-time school psychologist on site, they have immediate support for any mental health disorder, crisis and much more.

On Dec. 21, the U.S. surgeon general, looking toward students’ return to school following the holiday break, issued an advisory highlighting the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. Yes, mental health challenges in youth are real and widespread.

Where can help begin? For starters, at home. Students already face normal anxiety returning to school after a break, and concerns over the spread of COVID-19 and its variants only increase that natural uncertainty. But much of this anxiety can be allayed at home through parents’ own reactions to the things happening around them in the world.

There are four key ways parents can help their children transition back to school following a break:

  • Make a concerted effort to listen to your child.

  • Model effective coping strategies yourself. Watch for any changes in your child’s behavior, especially signs of regression or withdrawal.

  • Set aside a time to check in with your child daily.

For children who have experienced trauma, the NASP suggests adults take the following steps to help re-establish security and stability:

  • Maintain usual routines.

  • Watch for changes in behaviors.

  • Allow children to tell the story of the trauma they experienced, as they see it, so they can begin to release their emotions and make sense of what happened.

  • Respond calmly and compassionately, but without displaying shock or judgment.

  • Reassure children that the adults in their life are working to keep them safe.

  • Set boundaries and limits with consistency and patience.

  • Remind them repeatedly how much you care for them.

  • Give them choices to regain a sense of control.

  • Encourage and support them.

  • Anticipate challenging times or situations that may be reminders of the event and provide additional support.

  • Provide children who are acting out with opportunities to redirect their energy in a helpful way.

In my years as a school psychologist, I have observed that many parents, teachers, administrators, school board members and legislators don’t understand the difference between school psychologists and other school-based professionals such as school counselors and school social workers. And that leads to them underestimating our importance.

School psychologists are distinctly trained in both education and psychology, which means we’re uniquely qualified to assist students academically, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally.

We ask that all parents reach out to their local school boards and districts to inquire about mental health support available to students. Then, request the district utilize a model that has a school psychologist serve as an active member of one or two schools supporting the needs of all students versus being spread between multiple schools.

Thinking back to other iconic Lucy moments in Peanuts, let’s stop pulling the proverbial football away from our youth as they attempt to kick habits that lead to added anxiety and stress in these troubled times. As we approach the legislative season, we encourage parents and educators to reach out to your state legislator to advocate for mental health supports in the schools and the importance of school psychologist ratios.

Bethanie Monsen-Ford

Bethanie Monsen-Ford, president of the Utah Association of School Psychologists, is a nationally certified school psychologist.