Student mental health struggles skyrocketing

One of the main concerns of Salem-Keizer Public Schools (SKPS) since the COVID-19 pandemic hit has been the mental health and well-being of their students. 

Working alongside Paraorama Education — an east coast organization that focuses on improving student outcomes by helping schools and districts act on data -—- the district collected student well-being data from nearly 20,000 students in the Salem-Keizer area, ranging from grades 3-12 — questions were based on students well-being The district collected two sets of responses in April/May and October/November.

“I’ve seen student mental health range from troubling decompensation (a term used by mental health professionals to refer to episodes during which a person’s mental health disorder deteriorates), and deep struggles with ongoing trauma and suicidal ideation to high levels of engagement, happiness, diminished anxiety and relief from not having to navigate crowded hallways, classrooms and complex social relationships and, of course, everything in between,” said SKPS school psychologist Chris Moore. 

Based on the data that was collected, overall measures of self-reported student well-being showed that, since last spring, students are experiencing more challenging feelings (mad, lonely, sad, worried and frustrated) and fewer positive feelings (happy, safe and hopeful). Students did, however, share that they were a little more “excited” last fall than they were last spring. 

At the elementary level, the most significant drops in positive feelings were in feeling happy and loved — secondary students also experienced the most notable plummet in feelings of happiness. 

According to Moore, the most concerning exacerbation of challenging feelings at the elementary level were for students who are feeling lonely and sad — one out of five elementary students reported “frequently” or “almost always” feeling lonely and one out of seven elementary students said that they “once in a while” or “almost never” felt loved. 

At the secondary level, one out every three students reported feeling “frequently” or “almost always” frustrated — one in four felt lonely or worried “frequently” or “always” and one in five reported that they were happy or hopeful “once in a while” or “almost never.”

“It’s important to note that these data points simply suggest the presence of situational, social-emotional risk factors that need to be addressed. None of these data points in isolation suggest the presence of specific challenges with mental health. They simply capture snapshots in time that help us identify patterns and trends in student social-emotional well-being as we look for more efficient ways to respond to emergent student needs, especially now,” Moore said. 

Moore was able to compare the answers that were received with similar data that was collected across the country. One alarming stat the district found was that 80% of elementary students across the country experienced more positive feelings than SKPS students. However, SKPS elementary students reported doing better with challenging feelings than 70% of their peers across the country.

On the contrary, 60% of secondary students across the country experienced more positive feelings than SKPS students while 50% had similar struggles with challenging feelings. 

Both elementary and secondary students said that they were the happiest about family, friends, video games and pets — each set of students also reported that not being able to see family and friends, distance learning, fears about COVID-19 and struggles with mental health have been the hardest issues for them.

Although there has been a hands-on effort across the district to meet the mental health needs of every student, there have been many instances where staff members haven’t been able to get in touch with kids.

“Our counselors, teachers, support staff, and administrators have been relentless in their respectful attempts to reach out and consistently connect with students and their families. There are still a few hundred students with whom we’ve lost contact despite trying on a daily or weekly basis — virtually, via phone, and in-person. This is worrisome,” Moore said. 

While Moore believes that having in-person classes will create a rise in the overall mental health of students, he knows that theme won’t rein true for every kid.  

“Overall, I have no doubts that we’ll see improvement in the mental health of students as we return to in-person learning. Kids are much more resilient than we often give them credit for, but we will need to be mindful that during the transition back to in-person learning we are likely to see a spike in anxiety for some students, and some significant mental health struggles for around 10-15% of students,” Moore said. “We are under no illusions that our transition back to in-person learning will be easy, but I am confident in the will and skill of thousands of SKPS staff to show up for students, meet them where they’re at, and focus first on social-emotional well-being, while we build our collective capacity not only to heal through this difficult time, but also thrive.”