Return-to-Learn | Mental Health Amid School Reopenings

By Sarenka Smith

The stressors and challenges are diverse and multifold for children and adolescents who are soon beginning to return to school during an ongoing and somewhat unabating pandemic. The challenges of reopening schools are obvious—we have heard of outbreaks at schools that have reopened, and of both students and teachers needing to quarantine. At the same time, we know there is value to having students in the classroom, and a return to some semblance of normalcy for parents and caregivers: most of whom have transitioned to caring for and schooling children at home for the past year and a half.

With considerations including local transmission rates, vaccine efficacy among children and the inherent mental health challenges that have emerged in the past year, there is a critical need for increased support systems. Moreover, there must be an acute recognition that children and their families have suffered from an intense paradigm shift that has helped fuel isolation and loneliness. Prior to the pandemic, in fact, many children in the U.S. lived with mental health disorders. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2019, more than 1 in 3 high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness: a 40% increase from 2009.

The COVID-19 pandemic has specifically seen an enormous increase in mental health conditions, with statistics skyrocketing for depression, anxiety, trauma-related disorders, substance use disorder, eating disorders and more. Pandemic-related factors that have negatively impacted children’s mental health have included lockdown orders and social distancing -- and even potential financial insecurity and worsening mental health experienced by parents. Extended school disruptions have spurred a persistent social isolation that has led to unprecedented and magnified levels of stress.

And while youth mental health was already on a steep decline in recent years, a recent analysis published in JAMA Pediatrics found that it has only worsened. According to the published meta-analysis that surveyed more than 80,000 children globally, depression and anxiety have more than doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels. One in 4 adolescents is “experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms, while 1 in 5 youth are experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms.”

The mental health burden of the COVID-19 pandemic is immense, and we likely won’t fully understand its scope for years. What we know now is that the pandemic has exacerbated all the social determinants of health and underlying factors that challenge mental health. With quantitative evidence suggesting that we are in the middle of a mental health crisis that has specifically impacted the next generation, there is a dire need for supportive care and easy-to-access resources.

Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center are committed to supporting patients and their families during COVID-19.

  • We are providing assessments and accepting admissions for all levels of care for children, adolescents, and adults for both in-person and virtual treatment.
  • We are continuing to provide traditional Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), Residential, Inpatient, Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) -- including Virtual IOP -- and ITU levels of care at our centers nationwide.
  • We are working with insurance providers to secure coverage for virtual services. We will not bill patients in the event their insurer does not agree to pay for services.
  • We offer free in-person and virtual groups across the U.S. for a way to connect with peers in a recovery-focused environment. Visit our Support Groups page for more information on scheduling and specific groups.

Moreover, we are working to make care more accessible through our Virtual Intensive Outpatient Programs (Virtual IOP). Virtual care offers immense possibilities in the mental health space as a more accessible and flexible method of care. While it is still unclear what the post-pandemic regulatory landscape will look like, we have fully recognized the potential of virtual mental health services. In the coming years, virtual technologies have the potential to establish themselves as a viable alternative in the mental health space -- and improve our offerings to better engage and support patients and families facing mental health challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional Resources

  • The CDC has spearheaded the "How Right Now” campaign to help parents and adults facing mental health challenges find resources and support
  • NAMI has added a “How can I support my child going back to school?” section in its COVID-19 Information and Resource Guide
  • Alliance for Eating Disorders offers free, clinician-led support groups, a referral directory and more
  • Active Minds provides a series of resources in its “Mental Health Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic” including offerings for students and young adults, and schools, parents and communities
  • GLSEN has created a series of guides to help both students and educators create safe, affirming and inclusive schools for LGBTQ+ youth
Written by

Sarenka Smith

Sarenka has been voraciously reading & writing since she was a small child. For the past half decade, she has worked in marketing & communications for healthcare-focused organizations and…