As students return to classrooms across Massachusetts, school districts are boosting mental health supports to keep ahead of the demand for care.

Methuen Public Schools said they have renewed their partnership with Care Solace this year, a mental health care coordination service that works with schools, students and parents. Cambridge and other districts are offering teletherapy sessions for students.

Boston Public Schools said they hired nine “safe and welcoming school specialists,” to help returning students this fall.

“The pandemic has shown us that there is a mental health crisis in young people across the country,” said Jillian Kelton, Boston's chief of student support. “The environmental factors of when we were doing remote learning sort of fanned a flame of mental health needs.”

The efforts comes amid ongoing health advisories from the U.S. Surgeon General warning about the critical and often unmet mental health needs of young people. It’s been three years since the pandemic changed everything, forcing students to learn from their bedrooms, isolated from friends and teachers, some losing family members to the COVID-19 virus.

Kelton says the new school specialists have mental health and counseling backgrounds, and will tailor their assistance to each school’s unique needs. Boston schools are all also staffed with social workers, clinicians, guidance counselors and other support staff trained to help students deal with mental health issues. Some schools have also partnered with local universities to provide licensed clinical social workers to help.

“There has definitely been an increase in the need for medical services involved in supporting of what I would say are acute mental health behaviors in school,” said Kelton.

Lauren O’Malley-Singh, a nurse at Brighton High School which serves students in grades 7 to 12, says the school is hosting group therapy sessions during lunchtime to meet students mental health needs.

“We also have our Gender Sexuality Alliance, where our LGBTQ+ youth who are at our highest risk for mental illness, mental health crises, to support them,” she said.

The long-term impacts of the pandemic are far from over, according to a May 2023 report from MassINC Polling Group that surveyed about 1,500 Massachusetts parents of K-12 students.

Forty-seven percent of parents said they were somewhat or very concerned about their children’s mental and emotional health. Twenty percent of parents said their children had been offered counseling at school and accepted; another 23% were offered but didn’t accept.

John Crocker, director of school mental health and behavioral services at Methuen Public Schools, said that since the pandemic, students are reporting anxiety and depression at rates two to three times greater than before.

“There's been an increase across really every school when it comes to the student-facing personnel who are providing mental health care,” Crocker said.

But Crocker says since last year, they are seeing some improvements in routine student screenings. He said it’s because of increased resources. 

Methuen has served as a model for those services for students, and imparted their knowledge to other districts. The district has about 50 mental health staff positions. Crocker is also the founder of the Massachusetts School Mental Health Consortium and said his organization surveyed about 120 districts about this issue a year and a half ago.

“What we have found is that about 70% of districts across the commonwealth did not employ administrators that [could] provide clinical supervision and clinical leadership for initiatives related to social emotional learning and mental health,” Crocker said.

It’s a problem that isn’t going away. In October of 2022, 40% of Massachusetts parents surveyed lived in households with children said their children felt nervous, anxious or on edge for more than half to nearly every single day, according to the Kids Count Data Center at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

Bob Bardwell, executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association Inc., said some school districts may be spreading counselors' workloads too thin. A 10th grade counselor, for example, might be working with every student in the grade.

If there's 500 sophomores, I can't possibly service them well if I'm the only one on their caseload," he said. "That's where it becomes the challenge.”