By Dan England

Districts believe the need to support students’ mental health is greater than ever, and they’re spending to prove it.

Elliot Harrington is part of a new student group tasked with helping those attending Mountain View High School in Loveland feel welcome. His best qualification for this, other than being a junior himself, is that his parents run a theater company.

The Harrington Arts Alliance, like all theater companies, attracts all kinds. Harrington grew up around different sexualities, religions, colors, backgrounds and nationalities. There’s also a lot of drama, and not necessarily just the kind on stage. Harrington, in other words, got an early education into high school.

“High school is a melting pot from a lot of different places,” he says. However, all students share one trait: It’s a tough time to be one right now. High school isn’t easy anyway, even with all the good memories most adults have of it. But there’s also no doubt the pandemic made it a lot harder, even to an alarming degree.

Children’s Hospital Colorado was so disturbed at the skyrocketing rates of suicide that it declared the first pediatric mental health state of emergency.

Between January and April, behavioral health visits to the Children’s Hospital pediatric emergency departments were up 72 percent over the same time in 2019. In April alone, those visits were up 90 percent, according to Children’s Hospital.

The Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital saw twice as many patients reporting anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation. Representatives from the hospital and others pleaded for increased funding to address the mental health challenges students face as they return to school.

Schools are using federal pandemic dollars to hire social workers, psychologists and bring in extra counselors—enough, for the first time in many cases, to serve every school nearly every day. They’re hiring specialists to track down truant kids and advocates for families.

Harrington will be a part of Loveland’s “Sources of Strength,” a program designed to have students lead support teams. Adults help with these teams, but the students are in charge. Harrington is ready.

“I really just wanted to give back and make sure everyone at my school has a voice,” Harrington says. “They should have the support they deserve when it comes to counseling. I just want people to know I’m there for them.”

Harrington also believes his identification as bisexual helps him understand what students need. He hopes to start a “You Belong” campaign with his group, where they make and display posters with descriptions of students with different ethnicities, religions and traits.

“We just really want to advertise that diversity is good,” he says. “No one should go unnoticed.” Districts are utilizing as many creative ideas as they can come up with to curb those feelings of isolation besides welcoming them back to their hallways with open arms (and this year there are people in many schools designated for that purpose, like the greeters at Walmart).

Schools are setting time aside just for students to get to know each other again with activities such as making friendship bracelets, reading “Frog and Toad are Friends” and talking about the lyrics to Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” That kind of effort can prevent dropouts, depression or even school shootings: The FBI has said that a sense of belonging reduces violence in school.

“They need that socialization at school, and a lot spent a year and a half not doing that,” says Jennifer Guthals, director of student success at the Thompson School District. “The need was there already, but the need is even greater now. Last year was very, very hard, and we need to be prepared.”

Awkward, even more than normal

Students went back to school last year but it was in fits and starts and occasionally quarantines would force them back home for a few weeks. Even then, counselors got a glimpse of the challenges they would be facing this year, when districts return to full-time, in-person and (probably) uninterrupted learning.

“When high school students came back into the building, they would do things like poke each other,” says Kristin Dalton, the social and emotional learning coordinator in her 18th year at Greeley-Evans School District 6. “They displayed all these awkward social skills, even more than usual. It was like they forgot how to engage with each other. It was interesting to see so many students seeking out adult contact. We did a TON of counseling.”

Even a year before the pandemic, in 2019, the Thompson School District in Loveland saw a need for expanded services and hired Guthals to lead them. She was a principal in districts for years but saw the new position at Thompson as her dream job and applied. She’s tasked with creating anything that fosters a positive culture, from bullying prevention, discipline with dignity and monitoring the social and emotional health of students from elementary to high school.

“This work was happening in a variety of ways but not cohesively,” she says. “We needed to pull all these pieces together. My favorite part as a principal was creating community and making sure every student knew they mattered, and when I heard there was a job that would do all that, well, wow.”

Elementary students might build those relationships with what Guthals calls carpet time, where they gather in a circle and learn about what makes each other unique as well as what they have in common, even if they have drastically different last names. In high school, activities can help, but she’s urging schools to carve time out in the day to give students the opportunity to learn about their differences as well in something other than sports, music or art.

“They can help each other find their place,” she says. “How am I unique, and at the same time, how do I think about my future?”

The support, however, may look the same at all schools, especially this year. Guthals calls it layers of support. She has people ready to help students with their social and emotional health, and then she has others for interventions for more targeted support, and even others to support serious cases. We’re simplifying it here, but the idea is to provide far more intensive emotional and social support than ever before.

This includes far more social workers in all districts. “Some [social workers] would have four or five schools assigned to them,” says Theresa Myers, spokeswoman for District 6. “Now every school has at least a part-time social worker.”

At least, she hopes that’s what will happen. Social workers are in high demand. “They are hard to hire,” she says. “Everyone is trying to hire them.” The district will also beef up its counseling staff, some to handle elementary schools for the first time and others at high schools who can do more than just offer guidance on what career students should choose.

It’s District 6’s hope that those steps, plus hiring attendance advocates to lead a push to get kids back in school, can get them back in a good place.

Begging for help

A couple years before the pandemic, District 6 principals were practically begging for help to address their students’ social and emotional support. The pandemic, in a way, may have been a blessing. “Educators got a really good a glimpse of what home life was like for many of our students,” Myers says. “They were seeing a lot of stuff even during remote learning classes.

District 6 is considered a low-income district, with many of its students on free or reduced-cost lunch programs, and though income isn’t the sole indicator that things are tough at home, it’s a big one. “The pandemic just raised the awareness of what kids already go through,” Myers says. Suicide prevention was a topic long discussed in the Poudre School District as well, far before the pandemic, says Alex Ballou, a spokesperson for the district. “Every student and home life are unique,” Ballou says.

A Loveland woman who writes under the pen name Dawn Day and has one student left in Thompson Valley High School had all three of her daughters go through severe depression and suicidal thoughts, even attempts, despite her degree in psychology and experience as a counselor for children. She wrote a book and has a podcast talking about their struggles at hopefuldawn.com.

“We have to make mental health a priority,” Day says. “I had as much experience as you can expect, but I never parented with this in mind. That’s what needs to happen right now. All the pandemic did was exacerbate what was already going on.”

It’s also true that many parents did step up during the pandemic. They were home as well and could see what was happening, says Dalton, District 6’s social and emotional coordinator. This was even true of the refugee families in Greeley, when in the past they would never seek help on their own.

“Lots of parents needed or requested support,” Dalton says. “That increased by a hundredfold. That speaks to the fact that parents were paying attention.”

There was also far more talk and awareness about self-care during the pandemic than ever before. Finally, we had permission to take naps, learn an exercise program or accept days when we struggle, Dalton says. “I think if there was anything good about the pandemic, one would be that it normalized seeking out mental health support,” Dalton says. “We saw kids who we didn’t know were in the woodworks seek help for the first time.” The pandemic, then, gives Dalton hope that many of the issues that students face will finally be addressed in a significant way. The resources being directed at it by the districts and the federal government are a huge relief.

“I can’t even tell you, it will help so much,” she says. “Previously we had five social workers at all our schools in the district. That was 26 schools. They were spread extremely thin.” Those social workers can do things like develop a relationship with a student who was in foster care and running out of the classroom nearly every day. By the end of the year, Dalton says, there was no difference between that student and the others in the class.

The good news about the mental health crises facing our children is that it doesn’t require innovation to fix, says Tamara Pogue, a Summit County commissioner and CEO of Peak Health Alliance who spoke about Children’s Hospital mental health emergency. “We know what works,” she says “We simply can’t afford it.”

Well, they can, at least this year. It is Dalton’s hope, and the hope of many others, that someway, somehow, those resources continue to come in to address a long-term crisis that was exposed by the worst pandemic of a lifetime. “I want to keep those people we hire,” she says. “I have my boxing gloves on.”