How Are Highland Park’s Students Holding Up Under the Stress of this Pandemic Year?

This article is reprinted from the Feb. 19, 2021 edition of NJ Spotlight News and was written by NJ Spotlight Founding Editor John Mooney

Much has been said about a potential mental health crisis among schoolchildren nationwide, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and looming ahead as students return to schools.

NJ Spotlight News on Monday plans to host a panel discussion on the challenge in New Jersey and how — and if — schools are providing adequate support and other services, such as counseling.

The New Jersey School Boards Association recently released a report on the experiences so far in the state and school leaders’ impression of the extent of the problem.

The fourth of six reports by the association on the pandemic’s effects on education, it found that more than half of school board members, administrators and educators surveyed said they were seeing the pandemic’s effects on their students’ mental health.

For example, one in 10 surveyed said they saw a significant mental health threat in their schools and “evidence of more serious crises, such as incidents of self-harm, threats of self-harm, or hospitalizations.”

Some are ‘more anxious and depressed’

Almost half of those surveyed said they did not see their students “in crisis,” but observed that in general they were “more anxious and depressed.” A third of the respondents said they saw no evidence of an increase in mental health problems among their students.

Where there were worries, the causes were as one would expect. Almost a quarter said there were significant job losses in their communities, and more than 90% said there was in general more stress in the homes.

And the report described some tough encounters, to be sure, including an example of a student at a large Mercer County district who during a check-in call was signaling some suicidal signs and how staff immediately alerted the parents and got help.

“As time has worn on, with the isolation, the quarantining, the reality of not being able to engage in the things that used to be ‘normal,’” wrote the district’s counseling director, “you’re starting to see an uptick in mental health challenges … The pandemic has adversely impacted students over time.”

The association’s president, Lawrence Feinsod, said he found reason for hope in the survey’s numbers, but also reason for added vigilance. The report highlights a dozen school programs across the state addressing mental health that have had some success, he said.

“Many experts feared that students in New Jersey and the nation were ill-prepared to withstand another serious mental health challenge,” Feinsod wrote in the report’s opening letter. “But that has not occurred, according to an NJSBA survey released with today’s report, supported by other national surveys and data reaching similar conclusions.”

Nonetheless, the report also lays out a series of recommendations for both the state and local districts.

These include necessary state and federal funding for counseling and other supports to students. The report also pushes for stable funding for the students’ youth services programs. In addition, it calls for both short- and long-term planning to address the mental health needs of students.

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