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For the first time in months, Angela Tam’s first-grader didn’t have a Monday meltdown.

The way Tam sees it, her child catches glimpses of a pre-pandemic life — short outings to parks, movie nights, family time — on Saturdays and Sundays. “We don’t have a lot of outlets for joy. So joy came in on the weekends.”

Then, the mundanity of Monday. “I would describe it as rage,” Tam said of the fits.

Parents like Tam are again thrust to the front lines of their children’s education and caregiving this fall and are also stepping into another critical role: mental health responder. Schools, which have long been an important gateway to mental health care, say they understand the weight families feel, and are attempting to respond in kind. Officials at many local districts, including Seattle, Bellevue and Lake Washington, say they are focusing the start of the school year on students’ well-being. 

At the same time, researchers are working quickly to understand the pandemic’s effects on children’s mental health, beyond what’s already known: Children are facing isolation and uncertainty about their futures. Some, with rough home lives or other stressors, have little solace or space to escape. 

The state’s 1.1 million schoolchildren have been away from classrooms for nearly half a year, and a majority of these students won’t start this semester in school buildings. The coronavirus crisis is now bleeding into fall, a time when mental health symptoms associated with the pandemic could peak. State health officials have predicted an estimated 30%-60% of the state’s population, or 2.25 to 4.5 million people, may experience symptoms of depression.

This story is part of a series about what it’s like to start the school year during a pandemic.

Many children are worse off than just a few months ago. They’ve been in prolonged isolation. Parents have lost jobs. Those who used to meet with school counselors or therapists have missed out on valuable face time with caring adults. 

“There’s a particular concern about our young people and the fact that there aren’t as many eyes on kids,” said Jennifer Stuber, center director for Forefront Suicide Prevention. “It’s almost like there’s this shift to be focusing more on the caregivers and the parents and preparing them,” to help their children.

But some who have dedicated their careers to youth well-being, such as school counselors and teachers, say they’re suddenly receiving more serious support. It’s a welcome surprise.

“It took a global pandemic for folks to realize that social emotional learning is actually important,” said Randi Peterson, social-emotional learning curriculum developer at Bellevue School District. Peterson said her district plans to screen its students, as it has done before, but will also use school culture surveys and partner with parents to determine how children are doing.

These types of efforts took a bit of selling pre-pandemic, said Kelcey Schmitz, a school mental health lead at the University of Washington’s School Mental Health Assessment, Research & Training Center (SMART). Now, she said, “it’s more, ‘How do we do this?’ Districts that were addressing this before, this has accelerated the pace.”

FAQ: What you need to know about mental health and schools

Schools face an enormous challenge to catch up. Even before the pandemic, many struggled to meet their students’ emotional needs. Some elementary schools have a single part-time counselor, many lack a social worker and few schools can afford to hire trained mental health therapists. School-based health centers in King County are beginning to reopen, but mental health visits will be mostly remote.

Conversations in the hallways, casual chats after class — moments that can help teachers or staff catch signs a child needs help — can’t happen in an online environment. Remote counseling sessions are hit or miss: Confidentiality isn’t guaranteed, and kids have more trouble opening up, some say.

“What’s also scary is teachers give so much love and care to students when they are in school and they are attuned to students’ needs,” said Daniel Gagnon, who last year was a part-time counselor at Rainier View Elementary, and this year will work full time at Graham Hill Elementary in Seattle. “Now that they are not in school, who knows where kids are at?”

Eyes and ears

Tam is finding ways to help her child. She knows how to do so effectively because she’s a licensed mental health counselor for adults.

They are finally beginning to see the payoff from weeks of work. They have a planner, where they mark small things to look forward to. And they talk. A lot. Mostly about what they’ve lost. Playdates with friends, hugging Grandma. 

We’re “continually talking and grieving about what we can’t have because this world is so chaotic,” said Tam, who is Chinese American, and that vulnerable conversations like this go against the family culture Tam was raised in. “That helps her to make space for feelings she can’t put words on.”

But when it comes to whether Tam’s child will receive similar support at school, Tam is unsure, but hopeful. Mental health support in schools is “a luxury,” she said, and access won’t be equal everywhere. Food, housing, internet; many families in her school community — Kimball Elementary in South Seattle — are still without those basics, she said. 

Critical needs

Mental health concerns are closely tied to these critical needs, but particularly to financial security. For every 1 percentage point increase in unemployment, national data from the Great Recession shows, there’s a 1.6% increase in suicides.

The pandemic’s economic fallout has been particularly crushing for families who are not living in the country legally. These parents aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, and even in good times, they might have trouble finding stable work. 

Such has been the case for a family whose fourth-grade daughter attends Rainier View Elementary. They asked to remain anonymous because of their immigration status.

The stresses of the pandemic have piled on. The girl’s father does day labor, but has struggled to land work. Rent and utility bills didn’t wait. The family owns a computer from 2000 but didn’t have the internet. When the girl’s school sent a device and Wi-Fi hot spot, the family had trouble connecting. 

Then, a relative died from coronavirus. Their fear of getting sick escalated. 

“One day it’s going well, and the next day it’s hard,” said the girl’s mother in Spanish, with Gagnon interpreting. “My daughter is sad and confused.” 

For now, she’s putting her faith in God — and focusing on her daughter’s academics. “She’s very strong through this,” the mother said.

Many families are beginning to feel the effects of months away from school, said Shino Harada, executive director of New Traditions, a recovery center for women with substance use problems. Some clients say their children lost critical mental health services when schools shuttered. A parenting class Harada teaches has shifted to lessons on how mothers can manage their children’s stress. 

“Before, we would focus on communicating with the kids,” she said. Recently, she said, “my focus has been more on how to keep mental stability.”

Others say they’re drawing on skills they already have to cope.

“If I get angry, sometimes my body will just feel drained,” said a 14-year-old girl who lives in View Ridge and has a mood disorder that’s under control. “So when I feel that, that’s a signal that I’m mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted and I should do something about it.”

“Why don’t we know?

Schools and researchers are racing to comprehend how serious children’s mental health concerns might become — and how they could head off a crisis.

Unlike the public daily logs of coronavirus cases kept by local and state officials, no such documentation exists for mental health events, such as suicide. 

This is a nagging frustration for Stuber, who is partnering with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to send practical mental health tips and other information to schools. She and her colleagues are also training teachers and staff at 48 Washington high schools in suicide prevention and intervention techniques. Stuber worries that some student suicides will go unreported, or unnoticed by schools. It typically takes the state a year or longer to report such data, Stuber said. 

“This is what keeps me up at night,” she said. “Why don’t we know?”

Mental health resources for young people

1-800-273-8255 (English)

1-888-628-9454 (Español)

1-800-799-4889 (Deaf or hard of hearing)

  • For other youth-specific resources, follow this link.

A team of UW researchers may provide a more rapid snapshot of the pandemic’s effects on children’s well-being — though they aren’t collecting data specific to suicide.

Soojin Oh Park and Holly Schindler are designing a longitudinal study that examines ties among families’ disparate economic situations, children’s educational outcomes and mental health. They hope to enroll 600 families this fall.

“We wanted to be able to research and collect information that’s relevant to what families are experiencing right now in hopes of being able to be able to look at the data really quickly,” said Schindler, associate professor of education. 

The research is intended to parse sources of families’ stress, particularly among marginalized communities, said Park, who is an assistant professor of education.

She said, “Hopefully the descriptive stories we can tell on a more broader basis … will be able to paint a picture of urgency.”