School closures during the COVID pandemic have distanced students from their friends and support networks, and those closures are expected to continue well into the next year. The isolation and upended routines are already causing an upsetting psychological impact on home-bound students, but the longer-term ramifications may be even worse.
I spoke with some of the amazing social workers and school psychiatrists in our TherapyTravelers network, whom we’ve placed with school districts across the US, to get their thoughts on some of the steps therapists and school districts can take immediately to mitigate risks for students and try to reduce long term negative impact on student social and emotional well being. As this school year wraps up and therapists look for ways to support their students through the summer and into the next remote school year, I delve into some viable tactics below such as bringing in short term social workers and psychologist talent to provide remote therapy, leveraging free resources to educate staff and family to gain access to knowledge or tools, and tapping into state mental health departments.
Let’s first take a look at the short and long term issues children are facing, then consider in detail a few of the steps therapists, families, and schools can take to safely shepherd their students through the ongoing rocky landscape COVID has created.
Students Face Anxiety, Sadness, and Isolation
In a survey by Active Minds of thousands of students across different age ranges to find how COVID has impacted their lives, the most commonly reported impacts were stress and anxiety (91%), disappointment or sadness (81%), and loneliness or isolation (80%). These stressors are even more damaging for students who live in lower socio-economic circumstances, as single-parent households struggle to navigate financial hardships, work demands, schooling, and children in what are typically small living quarters.
Pressure builds, and as one social worker told me recently, and COVID-19 has caused drastic stressors for her students that she didn’t anticipate. She explained: “I am seeing a lot of my students suddenly go silent because they are no longer living where they lived just a few weeks ago. Their families faced major stress living in small quarters – imagine 8- people families in one-bedroom apartments. Single parents reached the breaking point and needed to share the load with estranged ex-spouses, leading to many of students moving to live with other parents or caregivers. I may have spoken to them one week, and the next week they’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m living in a different state now ….my mom shipped me off to my dad.’ Unfortunately, a lot of that is happening. I didn’t foresee that fallout. It’s all due to conflict in the home caused by the stress of having so many people living in small quarters and facing the prospect of, or actually losing, their jobs during COVID.”
Long term issues have already taken root
For children, the scars of COVID isolation won’t just disappear once therapies or vaccines eventually become available. The emotional ramifications of today’s problems may be permanent in many cases. The American Psychological Association explains that as the nation grapples with the spread of COVID-19, Americans are being told to go home and stay there, for their safety and everyone else’s. But for victims and survivors of domestic violence, including children exposed to it, being home may not be a safe option — and the unprecedented stress of the pandemic could breed unsafety in homes where violence may not have been an issue before.We are already seeing an uptick in domestic abuse. Teachers and caregivers who are usually the people who sound the alarm and report suspected child abuse to hotlines. But with COVID keeping children home and away from their schools, those calls to hotlines have plummeted. The Washington Post reports, “Across the country, from California to Iowa to Massachusetts, child abuse reports have plummeted since the virus arrived. In the nation’s capital, hotline reports of abuse and neglect between mid-March and mid-April were 62 percent lower than in the same period last year, according to the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. Reports to child protective services in Maryland have fallen just as far, and in Virginia, referrals from school staffers have dipped by 94 percent.”
Abuse will trigger a higher need for foster homes, but there are not many people signing up to be foster parents right now either, in light of the distancing measures and their own economic concerns.
Other long term issues are also surfacing. Particularly for students in lower socioeconomic households whose family members had never graduated high school, truancy and dropout was already a major concern. The therapists and social workers in our network worked hard to create a great family environment on campus, to make it comfortable and enjoyable for students, and to nurture them, to increase the odds that the students would stay in school all the way to graduation.
But, as our social worker colleague recently divulged, “Some of our students were hanging on by a thread already. The routines and support we created for them in school gave them comfort and that tenuous bond kept them coming back. Now with COVID, we broke from that routine. If or when those students will be able to go back to school down the road, they may just say
No way, why would I go spend 6 hours a day at school again?’ I’m worried about higher dropout rates, for sure.”
Hope and Resources Are Available
In these uncertain times and extraneous circumstances, our TherapyTravelers family brings remote services directly to students, to meet the immediate needs of students and their families. You’re pulled in a thousand directions. Your institution’s resources are stretched paper-thin. We are an extension of your support network. Our hope is to keep children on a trajectory to help them reach their full potential. Even as schools begin to close for the summer months, Our therapists, psychologists, and social workers remain available so children won’t need to skip a beat in their therapies and support. Students, their families, psychologists and therapists, and the school districts they work with can all lean on us for the support I encourage you to contact us, so we can provide the support you need. Also, our home page includes links to helpful resources, including webinars, videos, downloadable content, hundreds of helpful websites, and much more.
I also encourage caregivers to reach out to your state departments of mental health. Several have programs that include online training for teachers to recognize the psychosis of children, even when interacting with children remotely. The resources and training help uncover triggers when the normal struggles of social isolation threaten to turn into a more serious issue. These department resources can exponentially expand the resources available to therapists.
Whether you are a student, a family member, or a therapist wondering how to reduce the short, medium, and long term impacts of COVID isolation, know you are not alone. Our family of therapists and experts are here to help. We have the knowledge and strength in numbers to help you make it through these last weeks of social isolation, and plan ahead for the unknown.