Alabama hospitals report falling numbers of COVID-19 cases. Birmingham city schools began to offer blended learning in March and returned to in-person learning in April. In anticipation of the 2021-2022 school year, Birmingham City Schools currently offer vaccinations for students twelve years old or over. While caring for students’ physical health, administrators, teachers, and officials also remain concerned about students’ mental health. As Sara Gorman, the director of research and knowledge for the JED Foundation, told Education Week, concerns about mental health in schools are more than valid. “It can be someone reacts to an event that happened a year or two or 10 years ago with a kind of trauma-related response or depression or suicide,” Gorman told EdWeek. She also urged schools to prepare to help students dealing with the psychological and emotional effects of the pandemic “in a very comprehensive and long-term way.” The Birmingham Coalition for Student Mental Health has created just such a plan to improve mental health in schools.
The Pandemic’s Effect on Student Mental Health
In the past year, children and teens faced school closures and limited interaction with their peers as well as fears related to COVID-19. Some faced unimaginable grief as family members and friends died. According to U.S. News and World Report, approximately 40,000 American children experienced the death of a parent. The pandemic therefore took a toll on students’ mental health. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency rooms saw a 24% increase in mental-health-related visits from children age five to eleven. The rate of twelve to seventeen year olds visiting emergency rooms for mental health crises similarly increased by 31%.
The News and Student Mental Health
According to the Birmingham Coalition for Student Mental Health, students of color in particular experienced trauma in 2020. “Many watched the news of the horrific incidents of racial and political violence,” the Coalition writes in an article for AL.com. These horrifying incidents included “the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.” Furthermore, the Coalition writes, due to the pandemic, Black and Brown students “have endured it all largely in social isolation” due to the pandemic. According to the Washington Post, the number of Black Americans who experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression rose sharply in the weeks following George Floyd’s murder. The Post cites data from the Census Bureau showing that forty-one percent of Black Americans reported at least one symptom of depression and/or anxiety after the video of Floyd’s killing was released. This rate was higher than any other group.
Mental Health in Schools: The Birmingham Coalition for Student Mental Health
The Birmingham Coalition for Student Mental Health came together in the fall of 2020. This group of nearly thirty area organizations gathered to find new ways to address student mental health wellness and thereby improve outcomes for Birmingham school students. After performing surveys and speaking with hundreds of local community stakeholders, the Coalition released the Student Mental Health Policy Playbook in April of 2021. The policies presented in the Playbook do not represent a “quick fix” for schools. Rather, they’re meant to serve as “the essential building blocks for broadening and sustaining future school and life success for all Birmingham students.” The Coalition plans to work with schools and with the surrounding community to emphasize the importance of mental health. The Birmingham Board of Education will soon decide how to distribute COVID relief money for schools. In their article, the Coalition urges “the Board to prioritize mental health support for students, families, and educators.”
The Birmingham Coalition for Student Mental Health’s Policy Playbook
The Playbook presents a series of recommendations designed to improve and increase access to mental health services in and through area schools. The Playbook recommends shifts in the way we think about schools as well as changes in policy. Suggested shifts in mindset include focusing on the whole of a person rather than academic performance and fostering an understanding of mental health in the community at large. Policy recommendations include establishing a mental health support team on all campuses, training faculty and administrators to assist students with mental health, and increasing social-emotional learning in schools. In this way, the Coalition hopes to “help our young people to heal” and move “students from surviving to thriving.”