AURORA, Colo. — When 12-year-old Jayla heard a friend had died by suicide during the pandemic, she was terribly upset. The loss was bad enough, but Jayla carried an extra weight.
“He told me he was having a bad day earlier that week and I didn’t ask him why. I told myself it was my fault because if I wasn’t so fixated on myself and if I would have called him to check up on him, he would still be here,” she said. She was in a “bad place.”
While no one person or factor causes suicide, guilt is a common reaction among family and friends, experts say.
After her friend’s death, Jayla began having anxiety attacks and found her thoughts spiraling out of control. And she couldn’t really turn to anyone at home. “My mom works a lot and my dad really isn’t around, so I really don’t have somebody to talk to. And I don’t want to stress my grandma, she’s too old to worry about what I’m doing.”
She said having someone at school who could help was “really, really important.” And she knew exactly whom to turn to.
Jayla goes to Columbia Middle School in Aurora, Colorado, a school that doesn’t just have one counselor on hand, but a full mental health team — plus teachers who have received training in how to respond to mental health issues. The school also offers an array of specialized online programs and curricula at every grade level. These supports were paid for with funding the community had approved for such programs, even before the pandemic made children’s mental health a top national concern.
As schools across the country bring back thousands of students reeling from unprecedented mental health challenges, Aurora offers some lessons and evidence-based strategies they could look to in devising support. One of the district’s key strategies doesn’t cost any money at all: letting every student choose a “trusted adult.”
At the beginning of each semester, Jayla’s school sends every child a survey with photos of every adult in the building, asking the kids to name someone who they feel they can confide in, who cares for them as a person and who will find them the support they need.
Jayla’s trusted adult happened to be one of her school counselors, Katie Humphrey; during hallway conversation Jayla confided her guilt and anxiety over her friend’s suicide to Humphrey. The counselor then checked in on her every day to ask how she was doing and scheduled visits in her office. “That really helped because I was not able to talk about him without crying,” Jayla said.
Talking with Humphrey, who counsels seventh graders, helped Jayla understand the suicide wasn’t her fault; without that heavy burden of guilt, she’s now able to focus more on her school work. “If it wasn’t for them asking me if I was OK and checking on me mental-health wise, I don’t think I would be in the place I am now.”
Even before the pandemic, one in five children in the U.S. showed signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in any given year, a situation experts call a “silent epidemic.” Now, new studies warn of the pandemic’s potentially “debilitating effects” on children’s psychological, developmental and educational progress as anxiety, depression and loneliness increased over the last year. Federal and state governments have allocated extra money for mental health services and school districts across the country are scrambling to beef up supports.
But communities that had already prioritized mental health were in a better position to deal with the unique challenges of the pandemic. In Aurora, Superintendent Rico Munn said the focus on mental health started years ago, to deal with an array of challenges schools faced there.
“We had some of the highest expulsion rates in the state. We had one of the lowest graduation rates in the state. And we had a whole host of indicators that we were not connecting with our students in the right way,” he said.
District leaders decided the solution was to form better relationships with students. “Mental health supports play very much into that. Knowing who they are, what challenges they face and what supports they need, is fundamental to the way we think about our work,” he said.
The new focus has paid off. Since he started as superintendent in 2013, Aurora schools have seen a 23-point increase in graduation rates, from 56% in his first year to 79% in 2019, and a 55% decrease in police referrals, from 489 in 2013 to 220 in 2019 — improvements educators in Aurora say are a direct result of their work to connect with kids and better address students’ mental health needs. And while additional funding has been a significant factor in the district’s success, Munn said any district could replicate some of the simple strategies used by APS schools.
“We were very actively involved in this work before we got the money. The money allowed us to go to a deeper level,” he said.
Money for preventive work
In Columbia Middle School’s student support center, six students sit in a little circle, talking about what they call “small and big world problems.” Signs with cheery messages like “Shine Bright!” and “All About That HUG Life” decorate the walls of the center, a repurposed administration space with six smaller offices for private conversations surrounding the main room.
The kids in the circle offer their reasons for their first visit to the center: Taylor stopped by for a quiet space when her classmates were being “really annoying.” Sofia started to come by when she was stressed about getting good grades and was ready to “explode on somebody.” And Rose spoke to a counselor when her longtime friend began to withdraw.
The middle schoolers say they don’t feel any stigma about speaking to a counselor. “It’s scary at first talking to someone when you never have before, but it is definitely worth it,” said Rose.
Aurora isn’t a wealthy community, but 60% of voters supported a tax increase in 2018 — $35 million annually, 40% of which was earmarked for mental health programs — that allowed district leaders to hire more than 100 additional mental health professionals, contract with private health care organizations for specialized treatment, provide training and mental health supports for educators and expand mental health programming for all children.
Katie Lafave, a school psychologist at the middle school, said that before the district received the additional funding, her work was purely reactive. “It was putting out fires a lot.” Now, she can do preventive work for all kids, plus spend time making sure her building has appropriate reading materials, designated calm spaces, stress balls and fidget toys.
During the pandemic, families have faced hunger, homelessness, layoffs and health challenges. They may not have the time or even the words to talk about mental health. Sometimes the adults at home are the cause of the stress. Just 60% of children in the district’s COVID-19 student survey this year agreed that “home is a safe place.”
The students at the center, like many kids, say that some grown-ups might think they’re being lazy if they don’t complete school work. “Even parents say things like ‘What do you have to be stressed out about? You don’t pay the bills,’” Taylor said. “And that kind of sucks.”
Taylor said her parents are divorced but still live in the same town house. “They argue a lot because of the rent, the light bill, the water bill and everything. I feel stressed out because my mom cries and then it just makes me want to cry,” she said.
During those moments, she sits in her bedroom and texts her school counselors.
Casual conversations that build trust
Liam, 11, is not yet back in school in person because he suffers from several health conditions, including a compromised immune system. He’s very isolated, so counselor Jay Brown, a sixth grade counselor, checks in on him weekly via Zoom to help provide a connection to school. He’s also Liam’s trusted adult.
Brown keeps an eye out for any changes in Liam’s moods. “It can start as ‘I’m a little bit sad,’ but that could certainly change and get more severe and become more of a depression,” he said.
On a recent visit, they talked about gaming club, exchanged recommendations on TV shows to watch and Liam vented about his little sister. “Every single night at 8, when she’s going to bed, she yells. Loudly,” he complained. “It’s her bed time routine.” “Do you yell back?” Brown asked. “Nah, I just turn my TV waaaaay up.”
Mental health staff say casual conversations with children — in hallways, during lunch time, at the bus stop, online — are key to building trust and relationships. Even without multiple counselors on hand, they say schools can build these kinds of relationships if every adult in the building is taught how to help support children’s mental health.
Every year, all Aurora teachers and staff are required to receive training on how to recognize the signs a student might be struggling and how to refer the student for extra help. Certified trainers from the district’s mental health team of 43 offer the training sessions. In addition, before the 2020-21 school year, all teachers and staff were also required to take multiple sessions on how to give support to students in the classroom. The district also provides specialized training for certain teachers and staff members on inclusive environments, brain development, and suicide and crisis prevention and response.
Jessica Hyatt, Columbia Middle School’s receptionist, recently joined a three-hour session on how to recognize symptoms of suicidality and de-escalate behavior. “Before we were just winging it,” she said. “Now we have some signs to look for.”
Humphrey, the seventh grade counselor, said it’s now a point of pride to be named as a child’s trusted adult. “Our teachers take it very seriously when they say so-and-so’s named me a trusted adult.” The process also identifies kids who don’t feel connected, which sets off some soul-searching among the adults as they try to form connections with those children. “Like, why is this student not finding someone that they feel like they can trust?” said Humphrey.
Jessica O’Muireadhaigh, who is in charge of mental health for the district, said she’s proud that 89% of the students responding to a 2020-21 district survey said they felt connected to at least one adult in their school during the pandemic, an increase of 13 percentage points over the previous year. And 83% agreed with the statement, “I know where to get support if I need help with my feelings.”
“That’s huge because that’s the No. 1 protective factor that’s going to help kids feel connected and safe and a sense of belonging in school,” she said.