A closer look at mental health in schools during the pandemic

Nov 29, 2021
jennifer ulie-wells

The pandemic exacerbated many challenges already present in our community. A long stretch of uncertainty, isolation, and stress especially drove a need for greater mental health support.

Please Pass the Love has been on the forefront of meeting this need in innovative ways with a focus on supporting students and adults in school settings, while elevating the importance of building a comprehensive mental health system in Iowa that focuses on prevention.

In this blog, Executive Director Jennifer Ulie-Wells shares insights from the past year and where we must focus our efforts to improve the mental well-being of central Iowans.

Mental health is about creating spaces for all people to thrive.

When the brain is flooded with extreme levels of stress, this highly functioning organ cannot work as it should, impacting a student’s ability to learn, a teacher’s ability to teach, and a parent’s ability to parent, says Ulie-Wells. Creating spaces where people can thrive—which includes access to basic needs like food and housing and support—establishes good mental health from the start.

Without a strong system, COVID-19 exacerbated mental health challenges.

Mental health was already an issue prior to the pandemic, but, without a fully funded, comprehensive mental health system, the challenges became much worse, says Ulie-Wells. Political narratives around mental health are especially drawing attention away from building the system that’s needed.

“It’s harming people when we aren’t listening to our experts in our communities and we aren’t making decisions based on the voices of our students, parents, and staff,” she says.

It’s especially important that a system focus on prevention, like mental health services in schools and social-emotional learning opportunities, along with support for teachers and families.

“If we build strong systems with a focus on prevention,” Ulie-Wells says. “Then we don’t need to put as much into reacting to challenges.”

Nonprofits have been at the forefront of responding to mental health challenges.

With greater support from the philanthropic sector, including Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, nonprofits responded to increased mental health challenges during the pandemic. “We were building the plane as it flew,” says Ulie-Wells. “It was really that collaborative spirit that kept many nonprofits open and alive during that time, and able to meet the needs of a lot of folks.”

Please Pass the Love, for example, partnered with the Healthiest State Initiative’s Make It Okay campaign to host community forums, and it launched a series of online education and support groups. Knowing graduate students needed to complete their clinical practicums, Ulie-Wells partnered with Iowa universities to provide online therapeutic groups and workshops that taught students coping skills. The organization also added a mental health professional to its growing staff rather than contracting out those services as Ulie-Wells saw a need to build greater capacity.

We need to be concerned about young people committing suicide.

While the rate of suicides actually decreased last year, Ulie-Wells is hearing more and more about suicide attempts and suicides in the central Iowa area, causing concern. Already Iowa’s suicide rate is higher than the national average and the 2018 Iowa Youth Survey data showed a rise in young people considering suicide.

“Our already weak system was shaken and now we are starting to see the consequences of that,” she says. “It’s just like taking a fire that already existed and we just threw a bunch of gasoline on it.”

That is why helping young people with building coping skills and offering support groups is important. Support groups especially create a safe place where a young person may disclose suicidal thoughts and a mental health professional can help guide the student and their family in accessing services.

“It’s a lot harder to collect data on the lives we save,” Ulie-Wells says, “but these services, putting money into prevention, are saving and changing lives.”

Adults surrounding students, especially educators, need support, too.  

In 2020, Please Pass the Love offered coffee chats for adults, even though staff was unsure whether there would be interest. “We had dozens and dozens and dozens of people showing up just saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m worried about my students,” Ulie-Wells says. “We had parents coming in saying, ‘How do I explain this to my kids? People were just lost but finding comfort in just talking to each other.”

While many young people already had online networks to fall back on for support during this time, adults had to build those connections, Ulie-Wells says. Teachers, in particular, needed a safe space to process their concerns for their students and themselves as they felt attacked in the community.

“Educators’ struggles are really rooted in not feeling valued and respected in what they do, whether that’s respect from administrators, school board, families, students—all of those contribute to what we call vicarious traumatization and we saw all of that exacerbated during COVID,” she says.

Ulie-Wells is especially concerned about the potential for a mass exodus of teachers. “We have not fully funded education in over a decade,” she said, “and that then strains our educators, because you have educators bending over backwards trying to provide high quality education with fewer resources to do it.”

We need to look toward long-term solutions that work.

A lot of dollars are available to fund mental health supports rights now, says Ulie-Wells, but those dollars will be less effective if they go toward one-time efforts instead of focusing on sustainability of services. Mental health experts especially can be a resource in making funding decisions as they are tapped into national networks and know the models that provide the greatest return on investment.

Please Pass the Love recently gathered community feedback on the types of mental health supports needed to inform how it will expand its efforts. While the organization received hundreds of pressing needs, it is focusing first on creating a center for parents who need help getting connected to support and resources for their children. Ulie-Wells also is considering adding more mental health professionals to the team to increase capacity in the community. In the meantime, two AmeriCorps staff members are building technology solutions that can help connect teens to evidence-based practices via apps on their phone.

Find support

The following places can provide mental health support or connection to resources: 

  • A list of additional resources and hotlines
  • A list of school mental health resources

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