By Gwyneth Burns
BU News Service
Sitting alone at home in sweatpants staring at a screen does not characterize the traditional high school experience, but for current students, this distance is their new reality.
Barnstable Public Schools began the semester remotely as a response to the coronavirus. They had been operating under a hybrid rotation before transitioning to a remote model when the town entered the high-risk category in November. BPS has plans to resume in-person learning on Dec. 14. after reviewing public health metrics and consulting local experts, including Tom McKean, Barnstable director of public health, and Katie Rudman, the district physician.
“We are concerned about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and adolescents,” said Kirsten Beronio, director of policy and regulatory affairs at the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare. “We expect an increased need for mental health and substance use disorder services for years to come even after social interactions and education return to normal.”
The heighted isolation, limited in-person socialization, and overall uncertainty that defined this fall semester is taking a toll on students across the country.
More than one in four young people reported an increase in losing sleep because of worry, feeling unhappy or depressed, feeling constantly under strain or experiencing a loss of confidence in themselves according to a recent survey distributed by America’s Promise Alliance, a nationwide movement devoted to improving the lives and futures of America’s youth. The study surveyed 3,300 young people nationwide ranging from 13 to 19 years old.
Related hospital visits for children and young people are on the rise too.
The proportion of children’s visits to emergency departments for mental health reasons surged from April through October with increases of 24% for 5- to 11-year-olds and 31% for 12- to 17-year-olds, according to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention report.
The increases are striking, but experts say the worst is still to come.
“We have seen exponential increases in calls to hotlines already,” Beronio said. “Studies of past disasters have shown that mental health distress and suicidality often do not peak until years after the disaster is over.”
Suicide was already the second-leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 14, and over the last 10 years, emergency visits and hospital stays for children who thought about or tried to die by suicide have doubled, according to the National Center for Health Statistics with the CDC.
“Large-scale disasters like the pandemic are known to have widespread and long-lasting detrimental impacts on mental health and substance abuse,” Beronio said.
A concern remains that isolation and the added pressure of remote school during the recent months will drastically impact student health.
“Some kids are doing very well in the remote model, some kids are doing moderately well, and some kids are not doing very well,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “A large part of the work of educators this year is helping kids learn how to deal and cope and adapt to the moment.”
Of the students surveyed, 60% say an adult from their school has suggested social or emotional support tools for them, and 93% of these students found the resources at least a little bit helpful, according to America’s Promise.
Barnstable Public Schools has additional resources to provide emotional and social support for students and families, according to the district website. The page contains informational material from external sources including the National Association of School Psychologists and the World Health Organization.
Research and attempts to address the negative impacts on student health will be ongoing as the effects of the pandemic and remote learning on students develop further with time, and as more data becomes readily available.
“To address the behavioral health needs of children and adolescents, more resources are needed to help school districts implement a continuum of behavioral health support from primary prevention programs to behavioral health services in the schools,” Beronio said.
Barnstable Public Schools could not be reached for comment.