Summer is almost over and kids are about to head back to school. There's a lot of stress right now involved in being in class amid a surging pandemic. And for a lot of kids, social skills have atrophied while learning from home and their mental health has suffered. Now experts and parents are raising concerns there won't be enough mental health resources for students this coming school year. Among them is Northeastern University School psychology professor Amy Briesh. She joined GBH's Arun Rath on All Things Considered Tuesday. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: So what we're talking about is something that I feel like I'm hearing so much right now, particularly right now at this stretch, right as kids are getting ready for school. There's a lot of stress across the board, both kids who had preexisting mental health concerns and plenty who didn't before the pandemic. You wrote this piece this week on the website The Conversation, raising concerns about the mental health of young people. Give us a sort of overview: what prompted this?
Amy Briesch: Yeah, I mean, before COVID came along, we were already in the mental health crisis with youth in the U.S. We knew that there were at least one in five or six youth — both children and adolescents — that are struggling with some sort of mental health concern. And since COVID has occurred, the estimates that have come out have been kind of astonishing. There was a report that had recently come out in JAMA Pediatrics showing that the rate of anxiety and depression in youth may be double what they were before COVID.
And pre-COVID, we didn't have enough mental health resources in schools to be able to address some of these concerns. And now we're even more concerned than we were in the past. Those students are beginning to transition back into schools and buildings in a few weeks.
Rath: And I know, related to that, something that I've felt and heard from parents is that the remote learning was tough, but for parents who were also working at home, it did give you a chance to kind of be there for your kid in ways you might not otherwise. And now, with kids going back to school and a lot of parents still working from home, it's just that much tougher not having these resources, right?
Briesch: Yeah, exactly. I mean, when we think about, you know, there are always kids that are struggling with some type of separation anxiety, but how much more significant this could be for some kids that are returning to school soon? You know, a lot of students in the state of Massachusetts returned to schools in April, but not everybody.
There were still a lot of kids who were remote through the end of the year. And so if you think about how long some of these kids have been at home with those supports, in terms of parents and caregivers by their side and now transitioning back into buildings, you know, we're a little bit anxious about to see what's going to happen in this transition.
Rath: We've seen and talked about disparities all through this pandemic in terms of how people of color, those who are less wealthy, end up getting hit the hardest. And, you know, I've heard from parents who are doing quite well about difficulties, being able to get an appointment in this kind of situation like we're talking about. How much worse are these disparities right now in terms of mental health?
Briesch: Exactly. This is a major concern because even again, pre-pandemic, we had these concerns in terms of accessibility of mental health resources — are there enough practitioners that are out in the community? — but also things like transportation to be able to get to appointments, you know, insurance coverage, these types of things.
And so this is where we really see schools as being the optimal setting where students are able to access mental health resources, because all of those barriers that exist to being able to access mental health supports in the community don't exist in schools. We see kids in school buildings every day.
And so this is really where our push is to say: we really do feel like, given the scope of the mental health needs in youth right now, that schools are the best place to try and address these. But we just don't have enough school psychologists and school social workers and counselors in our buildings to be able to address a range of needs.
Rath: And thinking about that, it seems kind of an overwhelming problem to take on. Like, what is the solution? You can't wave a wand and, all of a sudden, have more practitioners. But you talk about some ideas for improving things. Could you break it down? Like, what could we do to to fix this?
Briesch: Yeah. I mean, I think that the concern right now is that given the scope of the problem, we can't go about trying to to fix individual cases, providing individualized services to everybody.
We need to take a more public health approach and take a step back and try to identify kids who have shared similar needs, or we can provide group supports or class-wide supports, in some situations. You know, we talk about anxiety and where the baseline levels of anxiety were pre-COVID, but now kids that are struggling with social anxiety is returning to classrooms, are struggling with worries about becoming sick, all of these these sort of shared experiences that we've been going through in the pandemic — and thinking about how can we provide these services, where we might still have one school psychologist, but they're able to provide those services to a larger group of students and thereby address some of those needs in that way.
I still think that we do need more practitioners out there, and so there have been lots of bills that have been proposed to try to increase funding for mental health practitioners and schools. And that's obviously critical, but thinking about: how do we allocate resources that do exist in different ways and school buildings as well?
Rath: And thinking about that long term, because, you know, this is not something that we're just going to shake off. We've heard a lot about the mental health toll — and not just talking about our kids, all of us. You talked about some legislation, is there a movement on towards basically getting more people trained to help all of us get through this?
Briesch: Yes, exactly. I mean, that's one of our concerns, too, is, you know, we have a pipeline issue in terms of not enough practitioners that are coming into the field. And there has been legislation that has been proposed to try to build partnerships between university training programs and the schools to get more practitioners out there — I think that's critical. And to provide the funding for students to be able to make it through graduate school and for it to be financially viable path for them forward. And so I feel like that piece of it is really critical as well in terms of building that pipeline of practitioners that are available.
Rath: Professor Briesh, this is fascinating and really important, and, kind of along the theme of long term care, I have a feeling we'll be talking again about this.
Briesch: Thank you.