Utah Psychologists: Mental health a subject of concern for Utah students
It was a meme before memes were even a thing. Many of us can undoubtedly call to mind the reoccurring scene from Peanuts cartoons and comics of Lucy sitting lackadaisically in a handmade wooden booth under a sign offering “Psychiatric Help,” with a lower sign indicating, “The doctor is in.”
I can’t help but juxtapose that comically carefree scene against the current climate of enduring pandemic uncertainty, divisive political rhetoric, climate change and myriad incidents of school violence nationwide. Considering the insufficient ratio of school psychologists to students here in Utah, it’s hard sometimes not to feel that the sign most students, parents and teachers envision today is “The doctor is overbooked.”
It’s often easy to overlook or downplay mental health issues in both our own children and our schools. But, according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in six school-aged children experiences a mental health disorder every year. When schools have a full-time school psychologist on site, they have immediate support for any mental health disorder, crisis and much more. When they don’t, students don’t get the support and help they need.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500-700 students. In Utah, however, the number is closer to one school psychologist for every 2,300 students. It’s easy for many who need help to inadvertently slip through the cracks.
On Dec. 21, the US surgeon general, looking toward students’ return to school following the holiday break, issued an advisory highlighting the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. Yes, mental health challenges in youth are real and widespread.
How can I help my child?
Where can help begin? For starters, at home. Students already face normal anxiety returning to school after a break, and concerns over the spread of COVID-19 and its variants only increase that natural uncertainty. But much of this anxiety can be allayed at home through parents’ own reactions to the things happening around them in the world.
There are four key ways parents can help their children transition back to school following a break:
- Make a concerted effort to listen to your child. Spend quality time with them, and ask open-ended questions about their feelings regarding school, their friends, etc.
- Model effective coping strategies yourself. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” Children learn as much by watching how their parents react to things as by anything else. Can we fault a third-grader, for example, for overreacting to someone slipping in front of them in the lunch line after watching a parent lose their lunch over another driver cutting them off in the school drop-off line that morning?
- Watch for any changes in your child’s behavior, especially signs of regression or withdrawal. These are often subtle signals that something is wrong.
- Set aside a time to check in with your child daily. Life happens. But in the swirling cacophony of demands on your time, be sure to set aside the time to connect with your children in some capacity every day. This helps set a foundation of trust and the expectation of open communication.
How do I address trauma?
For children who have experienced trauma, the NASP suggests adults take the following steps to help reestablish security and stability:
- Maintain usual routines.
- Watch for changes in behaviors.
- Allow children to tell the story of the trauma they experienced, as they see it, so they can begin to release their emotions and make sense of what happened.
- Respond calmly and compassionately, but without displaying shock or judgment.
- Reassure children that the adults in their life are working to keep them safe.
- Set boundaries and limits with consistency and patience.
- Remind them repeatedly how much you care for them.
- Give them choices to regain a sense of control.
- Encourage and support them.
- Anticipate challenging times or situations that may be reminders of the event and provide additional support.
- Provide children who are acting out with opportunities to redirect their energy in a helpful way, such as giving them additional responsibilities or leadership roles.
What role do school psychologists play?
In November, the Utah Association of School Psychologists joined the NASP in espousing the theme of “Let’s Get in GEAR,” based on the acronym of Grow, Engage, Advocate and Rise. The acronym highlights how school psychologists empower children and teens to grow in areas such as coping skills, social skills, empathy and compassion for others, as well as developing problem-solving, goal-setting and academic skills.
As president of the Utah Association of School Psychologists, advocacy and engagement are critical to my role. In my years as a school psychologist, I have observed that many parents, teachers, administrators, school board members and legislators don’t understand the difference between school psychologists and other school-based professionals such as school counselors and school social workers. And that leads to them underestimating our importance.
While our roles have similarities, school psychologists are distinctly trained in both education and psychology, which means we’re uniquely qualified to assist students academically, socially, behaviorally and emotionally. The pandemic has only amplified the need for mental health support in the school setting and school psychologists are ready and willing to support.
We ask that all parents reach out to their local school boards and districts to inquire about mental health support available to students. Then, request the district utilize a model that has a school psychologist serve as an active member of one or two schools supporting the needs of all students versus being spread between multiple schools.
Thinking back to other iconic Lucy moments in Peanuts, let’s stop pulling the proverbial football away from our youth as they attempt to kick habits that lead to added anxiety and stress in these troubled times.
Bethanie Monsen-Ford, president of the Utah Association of School Psychologists, is a nationally certified school psychologist. She did her training as a school counselor and school psychologist at Utah State University, where she earned her Master’s and Educational Specialist Degree. For more information about UASP, visit uasponline.org.