As K-12 schools move toward a post-pandemic mindset, experts say mental-health supports will have to evolve quickly as students face new anxieties and stressors.
According to the latest set of data collected by University of Calgary researchers, students aged 12 to 18 are less concerned about their own health as immunization rates rise and COVID-19 hospitalizations stabilize.
But many are still significantly concerned about their family’s welfare, in terms of health and financial stability, and many are also worried about maintaining relationships even as the pandemic appears less threatening.
“Things are trending in the right direction in terms of negative effects, stress and anxiety — things are starting to lessen,” said research lead Kelly Dean Schwartz, an associate professor at the U of C’s Werklund School of Education in the applied child psychology program.
“But as we dig deeper, it’s all of the ancillary aspects of the pandemic that students are now bearing the brunt of, especially the economic impacts.”
As part of the COVID-19 Student Well-being and Resiliency study, researchers have been surveying students aged 12 to 18 since the fall of 2020, releasing data in five different waves.
In the latest survey, completed last fall, youth were more likely to say they were less concerned regarding their own health, but more than two-thirds, or 69 per cent, remained concerned for the health of others in their household.
In fact, family and social stress remained high from a youth perspective, with 42 per cent indicating they are “very” or “extremely” concerned about their ability to co-operate and support each other, and 48 per cent remaining concerned about their ability to maintain social ties.
Student stress also comes from economic strain suffered by families, with data showing 35 per cent of those surveyed had an immediate family member lose a job or have their work hours reduced during the pandemic.
“This is significant — where students in up to 30 to 40 per cent of families have faced a major economic hit,” Schwartz said.
“Those students’ stress levels are elevated because they’re not only dealing with all of the regular health impacts of COVID, they’re dealing with the economic piece, too — that has been really foundational.”
In response, Schwartz argued schools and community health agencies need to work more closely together to provide “wraparound” services to students and their families as they face post-pandemic stressors together.
“Health and education now have to share the responsibility for student mental health. It can’t just be schools alone, and it can’t just be the hospital emergency room,” Schwartz said.
“There has to be a co-ordination of supports.”
Leanne Timko, director of learning services at the Calgary Catholic School District, says mental-health supports at CCSD have been restructured to provide more wraparound service supporting students and their families.
“Parents are a child’s primary educators, and if we have students who are struggling, we must include families in the support work we do.”
As masking and other restrictions are relaxed, Timko says mental-health practitioners can now meet in person with students and families.
But thanks to the pandemic, virtual counselling has become more normalized and will still be available to families who are too busy, or perhaps too nervous, to meet in person.
“We have quite an adept skill at virtual counselling now, and we’re very conscientious of how families feel and what their anxieties are.”
Timko stressed that mental-health supports also go hand in hand with academic success, particularly when students may have suffered some learning losses during the pandemic.
“Learning is about taking risks, knowing you might make a mistake and get something wrong. And if that becomes a negative experience, you’ll be afraid to take that risk again.
“But if you have resilience, you have a willingness to keep trying, to keep learning something new even though it may not come easily.”
Since before the start of the pandemic, CCSD has increased its staff of mental-health practitioners from 96 to as many as 137.
Officials with the Calgary Board of Education say they, too, are evolving mental-health services, working more with the wider community and partnering with such local health agencies as Hull Services or Children’s Link Society, which provide well-being and mental-health support for students and their families.
“We want all students to be successful in their learning, and we recognize that positive mental health enables students to fully participate in their learning,” said Andrea Holowka, CBE superintendent of school improvement.
“When teachers identify students who appear to be struggling with mental health and well-being, we work with families and community partners to refer and suggest resources for students and their families.
“Although there may be changes to individual student and family needs as the phases within the pandemic change, we continue to address student needs on an individualized basis, reflective of their needs in that moment.”
Ashley De Vera Macayan, youth program co-ordinator at Distress Centre Calgary, says even as pandemic restrictions loosen, young people are still seeking help for a variety of mental-health challenges, including transitioning back to normal and handling pressures around family and relationships.
“Mental-health supports need to address multiple facets of life because there are many parts, and different agencies and services need to address multiple types of issues.”