Experts and school leaders see COVID-19, isolation taking toll on students' mental health

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Posted at 10:36 PM, Nov 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-19 23:15:45-05

MASON, Ohio — With the new challenges of living amid a COVID-19 pandemic, experts are seeing mental health issues in children and teenagers rise across the country and in the Tri-State.

Since coming back from summer break, Mason City Schools has had about 850 alerts for concerning searches or other similar activity on school devices, according to Superintendent Jonathan Cooper.

“‘How do I die?' Or, 'does it hurt to die?' Or, 'if I’m being abused should I die?’ Those are some of the literal searches we’re seeing come up,” he said.

Last year, the district had 43 students go through an “at-risk assessment,” which means there is increased likelihood that the student is having serious thoughts of suicide.

Just since the beginning of this school year, one racked by COVID-19 closures and uncertainty, 51 students have already gone through that same assessment. Cooper said a major theme they’re seeing in these cases is social isolation.

“That is a cause for a student to even consider those thoughts this time,” he said.

Mason City Schools is far from the only district seeing the toll that pandemic isolation is taking on students’ mental health. Experts said calls to the national suicide prevention hotline are up.

Jennifer Vargo, the director of the Office of Integrated Student Supports at Ohio’s Department of Education, said districts across the state are dealing with this, too.

“Because of the rise, or at least the increase of awareness, that students are having more mental health difficulties, we’re responding in that way,” she said.

Dr. Paul Crosby, president and COO of Lindner Center of HOPE said that sometimes, it's okay to not feel okay. In fact, he said it's perfectly normal to feel anxiety right now, and children may model the stress they see in the adults around them.

“Children of all ages really look to the adults around them and really, especially, look at adults’ emotional responses in order to model their own behavior,” Crosby said.

Crosby said that many mental illnesses tend to respond well to treatments.

"Sometimes, that’s medication and sometimes it’s talk therapy, and sometimes it’s both. The important thing to know, though, is treatment is available and it’s usually very well tolerated and very successful.”

Mason has a team of 17 staff members dedicated to supporting students struggling with their mental health. The district wants parents to be aware of what’s going on and talk to their kids about these things to find out how they are coping during COVID-19.

Cooper encouraged parents to “lean in” and keep the conversation open with their children should they start showing signs of mental stress.

“Instead of just throwing our hands up, or feeling frustrated, or not knowing what to do, and feeling like we’re frozen, is to just keep working at it,” he said. “And it’s not going to feel great and it doesn’t have quick results, but keep working at it and opening that conversation with your kids and giving them a lot of grace in this time.”

And Cooper has a message to anyone facing thoughts of suicide.

“You are not alone,” he said. “We are here as a community, and your life is so precious to us.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, find help using the local and national resources below.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Text “4HOPE" to 741 741

Lindner Center of HOPE
(513) 536-4673

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center - Psychiatric intake
(513) 636-4124

Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services