WIUM Tristates Public Radio

How Will School Social Workers Face A Mental Health Crisis, Often Over Zoom?

Aug 28, 2020
Originally published on August 26, 2020 6:03 am

Whether it’s the global pandemic or social unrest, nearly everyone has experienced some trauma in 2020.

It’s hard to grasp the long-term mental health implications of COVID-19. But many Americans have already seen their mental health suffer during the pandemic.

A study from the CDC found 75% of respondents between 18-24 years old reported experiencing mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression.

Maryellen Spicer is a social worker at Sycamore High School.

“A lot of our service providers in the community have seen an increase in adolescence," she said. "And then, particularly ages 18 to 24, there's been a real increase on need and actual suicide attempts."

Spicer and other social workers, psychologists and counselors will be on the front lines trying to provide mental health support to students starting school amid COVID-19.

Kristal Templin is a fellow social worker and counselor at Sycamore.

“Often we deal with situations that are a crisis and that's a given," she said. "But, usually, not everyone is affected by the crisis."

And the anxiety is coming from both the quarantine and lack of social interaction that existed before, and now, the stress and uncertainty of whether a return to a social environment like the classroom can be done safely.

Spicer’s district just delayed their in-person start date and will spend at least the first nine weeks online. Conducting social work online can present a multitude of challenges, especially when you may have students with significant disabilities or anxiety.

Silvia Hudzik is a social worker in Rockford at RESA Middle School.

“If there’s some risk of harm, I mean, how do we assess that?” said Hudzik. “And then when I think of my new students, am I ready to see their house? That's their space. That's their home base. I mean, are these families ready for that?”

Fundamental work like teaching about facial expressions or how to come in and out of conversations becomes much more difficult to convey over Zoom or Google Meet. Students may have experienced a loss in their family but feel uncomfortable reaching out.

Trauma students experience during the pandemic doesn’t replace what they experienced before; it adds another layer to their story. And some students may not have even met their school social worker in-person.

Jen Cotovsky is a social worker at DeKalb High School.

“I think it's strange for students to reach out via email and say that they need to talk to me," said Cotovsky, "whereas if they were in the building, they could just come down to my office and say, ‘Hey, do you have a minute?’"

Social-emotional learning is going to be front and center at some schools. Elizabeth Kroening is a social worker at Gregory Elementary in Rockford. She said the spring was the definition of a crisis. So, while they were sending out some materials, they couldn’t blame parents for not being as responsive.

Now, social workers are putting together presentations and using online learning platforms like “seesaw.” They’re focusing on coping strategies like meditation or getting outside. And asking about good things that happened over the past few months, like spending more time with family.

E-learning lessons also include links to community services like food pantries and housing.

“I think we also like didn't realize, like, we thought we were all so virtual until this," said Kroening, "and then it's like, there is all this stuff, but we don't use it."

Rockford Public Schools are still planning a blended, part in-person, part online option. Silvia Hudzik said about half of the district’s families chose remote learning.

Around half of her caseload will be online. The other half she will get to meet with personally. 

Social workers often fill their office with little fidget toys or stress balls students can use to relax. Now, some new school guidelines say they can’t have shared items that need cleaning, and personal items are limited.

“I have all these coloring sheets," said Hudzik. "You know, the kids come in and they doodle because it kind of takes the pressure off of sitting across from each other. So, it's still like, ‘how am I going to pull this off?’”

Social workers also must help educate teachers on how to pick up on behaviors and building social-emotional connections even online. And, as Sycamore’s Maryellen Spicer recalled, it’s impossible for educators to help if they’re not looking after their own mental health.

“In March, I had a couple students who would be in crisis and I'm at home in my kitchen, on the computer with them having to get ahold of mom on the phone, getting a hold of their case manager," she said. "And they tried to piece that together for the student. And then when I was done with that crisis, and we had that student in a safe place, I'm still at home in my kitchen. So, what am I doing to take care of myself?"

It’s unclear how long into the fall or winter many students will be learning from home. But, wherever they’re at, social workers say they need access to mental health support now more than ever.

Even as millions of students in the United States still go to school with no counselors or social workers at all.

Copyright 2020 WNIJ Northern Public Radio. To see more, visit WNIJ Northern Public Radio.