Gotham Gazette

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To Meet Children’s Mental Health Crisis, Support Our Social Workers

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Helping children through a pandemic (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

The Surgeon General’s rare public advisory made official what we as social workers have known for 22 months – that the pandemic has accelerated a mental health crisis for children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) have also issued a bold declaration of a national emergency in children’s mental health.

Those of us who work with students in schools are now well into our second year on the frontlines, where the most vulnerable communities—already experiencing enormous challenges by 2020—disproportionately lost loved ones, income, and security.

Covid’s devastating threat to children’s long-term resilience and wellness is clear: more than 120,000 children under the age of 18 in the United States, 65% of them children of color, have lost a primary caregiver to COVID-19, according to the National Institutes of Health. We see this heartbreak on the ground, provoked and exacerbated by economic insecurity and systemic racism.

Securing our children’s future will take a long-term campaign on many fronts. I agree with the AAP, AACAP, and CHA that funding effective in-school mental health care is a key strategy.

It will also require that those social workers have critical insights into the stressors affecting everyone in the school ecosystem. Children are not alone in their pain. Teachers and academic staff have had their share of anxiety and loss throughout the pandemic, worsened by recent news of weapons and violence near schools. As we see widespread understaffing in schools, we need to acknowledge this stress amid the additional pressures of children returning to school full-time.

During last year’s on-and-off-again schedules, our team of social workers stayed close to the 30,000 students we serve in New York City schools in person or via tele-health. This helped us smooth their return to the classroom and cope with setbacks.

But a broader population of children did not have the benefit of preventive services to encourage emotional regulation and social-emotional skills development. So we are facing a herculean effort to ensure they adapt to the demands of in-person schooling.

A new McKinsey study shows that students in schools where 75% of children are Black or from financially-insecure families are falling further behind pre-pandemic math and reading than those in predominantly white and high-income schools. They are also almost twice as likely to be missing school days. The study points out how important it is for students to have caring adults in school to help them reconnect socially and focus on their academic goals. 

Due to the pandemic, students in kindergarten-second grade had never experienced a full and typical school year; third-graders had not been in school since kindergarten. Many middle and high school students, now considered older children, never experienced healthy transitions from elementary and middle school where they would have learned conflict resolution and self-regulation. They are transitioning, often unsupported, from flexible online learning to standardized testing and strict deadlines. 

Many children are struggling. This all places pressure on the adults in the room – teachers, principals, support staff, and social workers.

Our work is a progression towards a happier, more confident child. But given these pervasive needs, how do we structure a support system that is responsive to them and enables regular, predictable, and ongoing growth?  

There are no easy solutions to create a healthy environment for everyone and build sustainable supports for children—but we do know that we need to step up to “help the helpers.” Some suggestions:

Provide supervision and training. The clinical supervisor is a critical frontline resource for a social worker and should not be stretched across too many sites. Our clinical supervisors observe day-to-day issues as a team member—not an outsider—and can make timely recommendations.

Conferences, workshops and trainings can revitalize skills and creativity – and should be promoted on an ongoing basis. Like regular meditation, their benefits are cumulative and powerful.

Broaden networks of peer support. Informal networks – among schools and nonprofits – can build community ties and offer collegial support. Providing a place to share vulnerability, they have a freeing effect on people who devote so much of their mental and emotional energy to others.

Make time for self-care. Social workers experience “vicarious trauma,” holding the stress of the children they serve and, often, as sounding boards for their colleagues. To provide a buffer, our organization prioritizes “self-care” paid time off.

As we mount one of the most important crusades of our lifetimes, let’s support the counselors whose expertise and advocacy will guide us.

Angela Jefferson is Chief Program Officer, Partnership with Children. On Twitter @PWCNYC.

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