Schools sharpen focus on students' emotional needs in pandemic's wake
Katie Horan, health teacher at Dodd Middle School in Freeport, teaches breathing exercises during a class earlier this month.
Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca
Octubre 31, 2022
Jonah Posner found himself sitting on the bathroom floor last month, tears welling in his eyes, telling his mother, "I can't go to school tomorrow."
The Bridgehampton High School senior said he no longer could handle the stress that had built up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The feeling of falling behind, the fear of illness coming into his home, the late nights studying, all while taking high-level AP and college courses. When school started in September, he felt like he had nowhere to turn. He didn't feel comfortable going to a school counselor, he said.
"I felt stressed every day. I get way too stressed. Overwhelmed," said Posner, 16, who is a top student and student council president.
Long Island schools, aware of the pandemic-fueled increase in student anxiety and depression, are doing more this school year to help students coping with the fallout of 2½ rocky years of remote learning, isolation, learning loss, masking, social distancing and more.
WHAT TO KNOW
Long Island educators, aware of the pandemic-fueled increase in student anxiety and depression, are doing more this school year to help students coping with 2½ rocky years of remote learning, isolation, learning loss, masking, social distancing and more.
Educators say they knew schools needed to do more. Consequently, they say they are increasing their partnerships with community-based behavioral health services.
Districts also are bringing more wellness strategies into the classroom, finding creative ways to engage students and allow them to open up.
Before the pandemic, the rates of children's depression and anxiety were estimated to be 8.5% and 11.6%, according to a review of 29 studies across the world published in JAMA Pediatrics in August 2021. Since the pandemic, the study reported that one in four children were reporting depression and one in five are reporting anxiety.
Among high schoolers, more than a third (37%) nationally reported they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless, according to a March 2022 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Long Island educators said they knew schools needed to do more. Consequently, they have increased their partnerships with community-based behavioral health services. They are also bringing more wellness strategies into the classroom, finding creative ways to engage students and allow them to open up.
"There's a greater understanding that in the pursuit of academic excellence, students' basic needs must be met. They need to be seen and heard and have a voice," said Nicole Galante, Stony Brook University's director of educational partnerships and innovation. "We've found we need to respect them as individuals before you can teach them fractions."
In some ways, this is a less-stressful school year for students, Galante said. Students can see their teachers' and classmates' faces and more easily hang out with friends, she said.
But students are still coming to terms with all the upheaval, and for some, emotional problems continue to surface, said Shari Lurie, senior director of mental health services for the South Shore Guidance Center in Freeport and at Epic Long Island in East Meadow. This is particularly true in communities — low income, minorities, immigrants — that were especially hard hit by COVID-19, having higher levels of severe illness, economic hardship and deaths, she said.
Some students didn't have the technology to get through remote learning and fell behind. Some were dealing with troubles in their household, and, during the worst days of the pandemic, didn't have their usual outlets to vent their frustration, whether it was a school counselor, teacher or a friend, she said.
'The needs have escalated tremendously'
The South Shore Guidance Center long has had a relationship with three schools — Uniondale High, Roosevelt Middle and Dodd Middle in Freeport — providing social workers inside the schools as well as after-school therapy, Lurie said. Since the pandemic, requests for assistance have increased by about 25% from the schools.
"These communities have had so much trauma. For some students, it's hard to look people in the eye and tell what they're going through," Lurie said. "In our clinics and schools, the needs have escalated tremendously."
She added, "The intensity of the kids has increased. We're seeing more depression, more anxiety, more being hospitalized. We're seeing more students cutting themselves, drinking, having suicidal ideation."
In general, schools have greater availability of government funds to deal with mental health. Long Island schools have designated more than $500 million in federal pandemic-relief money for spending over a three-year period, including more than $200 million for the current school year. Finance experts said most aid money is directed at three goals: repairing student learning loss, supporting students with emotional and psychological ills, and upgrading school facilities.
Dodd Middle School Principal Johane Ligonde said the partnership with the center is working well. The center has stationed a bilingual social worker/therapist at the school on a part-time basis. The therapist is trained in ongoing therapy, whereas the school's social workers are not, she said.
Dodd Middle also is bringing in behavioral experts from Northwell Health to present workshops to staff on strategies for suicide prevention, self-harm prevention and taking care of their own stress, Ligonde said.
Northwell Health, the Island's largest health care provider, had provided behavioral services to five Island school districts before the pandemic. Now it has relationships with 26 districts, said Dr. Vera Feuer, associate vice president for school mental health for Northwell.
Northwell has opened three centers since 2020 for young people who need urgent mental health services, in Rockville Centre, Mineola and most recently in Commack in September, she said.
"I think schools realized they can only do so much on-site with in-person staffing," Feuer said. "Before the pandemic, these crisis services were traditionally provided in a hospital. But that's not the ideal place to engage a child needing mental health services. There can be long waits and communication breakdowns."
Youth Connect at OLA of Eastern Long Island members, from left: Faith Evans, Minerva Perez, Andrés Espinosa and Jessica Tovar.
Credit: Randee Daddona
One out of five young people suffer from mental health issues, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for adolescents and children as young as 10, Feuer said. Yet a shortage of adolescent mental health specialists makes it difficult for parents to find timely help. Waits for appointments can be three to six months, she said.
The centers serve area students exclusively, and school districts pay between $69,225 and $95,850 annually for the services, which also include community education, professional development and staff support.
"The centers are not a scary hospital, but a place to feel safe," Feuer said.
Difficult search for help
Posner's mother, Joyce Weinberg, said her son had asked her for help in August. It wasn't the first time. She said she had spoken earlier to a school psychologist who was overwhelmed helping students.
Weinberg started looking for therapy for him out east, but "there's almost nobody who sees teens." She called one place, but the waitlist was so long they weren't adding new names, she said.
"I was in absolute despair," she said. "I called another place and they never got back to me."
In early October, someone at Adelphi University referred her to a nurse practitioner in psychiatry in Wantagh, who has been treating her son, she said.
"Even for a person with some means, it's been an absolute nightmare," she said. "Now he's getting help. He's doing better."
Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, said she knows many young people struggling with stress but who don't want to involve a school counselor or other adults. Credit: Randee Deadener
Minerva Perez said she knows many young people struggling with stress but who don't want to involve a school counselor or other adults.
Perez runs OLA of Eastern Long Island, a bilingual advocacy group that helps connect people with health and medical services. Her group has begun an anonymous crisis counseling helpline that provides adolescents with access to immediate support and guidance in Spanish and English.
"We're giving teens what they've told us they want: anonymous, confidential, free emotional support in Spanish and English," Perez said. "Our crisis counseling team is available by text, phone or email, and the young person doesn't need to share their name and number when they reach out to us."
The program, called Youth Connect, also aims to make young people comfortable with seeking emotional help from the schools and their parents. OLA, which stands for Organizacion Latino Americana, is working with school officials in East Hampton and Bridgehampton, making in-school presentations, and hopes to expand to the entire East End, she said.
Despite the growing awareness of mental health, many students remain afraid of seeking help because they feel they will be judged as "not normal or too weak," Perez said. "Youth need an anonymous option. Stigma is real. … Youth feel that adults and loved ones will judge or be shocked or ashamed."
Youth Connect is not just available to Latino youth or those in low-income homes, though Perez said these populations have been among the most impacted by the pandemic. The group's helpline number — 631-810-9010 — is open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
"A lot of students went a little MIA [missing in action] during the pandemic. The isolation factor was massive," Perez said. "Now we're seeing the fallout."
Most recently, she is seeing families struggling with evictions, following the end of the pandemic eviction moratorium in January. But families also are worried about job losses, energy assistance and just making rent and mortgage payments, she said.
"These fears are translating to their kids," she said.
Bridgehampton High School senior Jonah Posner. Credit: Randee Daddona
Perez actually met Posner when she spoke at his school in Bridgehampton in June.
"She talked about Youth Connect, and it sounded like a really good idea," Posner said, adding that he is now helping the group. "I really appreciate her involving youth. She asked me what I thought of a flyer and a survey. She's getting my feedback."
Posner, for his part, said he is still dealing with stress, but things are improving.
"I guess I'm trying to take it day by day," he said. "I finally realized that the stress I was putting on myself was not worth it."
Breathing lessons, 'calm boxes'
Every morning, during homeroom class, the students and staff at Dodd Middle drop everything and sit quietly, doing breathing relaxation exercises. For instance, they will take in deep breaths through their nose and exhale slowly as if breathing through a straw, Ligonde said.
"It gives them back control," she said. "It sets a tone for the day, and establishes the culture in the school."
If a student gets in a fight and is brought to the main office, they are not peppered with questions and criticisms. They are given time to breathe, she said.
"Students say they can't control their anger. Well, they can," Ligonde said.
In the North Merrick school district, students are creating "calm boxes." They decorate and fill a shoe box with toys such as Rubik's Cubes, squeeze balls to relieve stress, and monkey noodles, which can be stretched, pulled, and twirled — only to return to their original shape, Superintendent Cynthia Seniuk said.
The calm boxes will be placed in each class, and when a student feels anxious or upset, they can reach in and fidget with one of the toys, Seniuk said.
"We don't want them to distract the student from the work. We want them to help the student focus on the work while lessening any anxiety," Seniuk said.
The district has Mindful Ambassador Clubs for fifth- and sixth-graders, who visit younger students in class and do activities — breathing and yoga — to help them calm down. The clubs are putting together about 90 calm boxes to be distributed to all classes in the district.
Jacob Salem, 11, said he likes the calm boxes so much that he made one for himself at home, decorating it with the Lego logo.
"Whenever I get angry or sad, I go to my Legos and build something for a while until I'm calm," said the sixth-grader at Harold D. Fayette School.
Sixth-grader Austin Haffner is among those students constructing the calm boxes.
"I get stressed a lot, easily," said Austin, 11, who also attends Harold D. Fayette School. "If I have a chance to help people lose stress, I should try.