This is part two of a series on mental health amid the coronavirus pandemic. For part one, visit mtexpress.com and type in “mental health amid a pandemic.”
The Blaine County School District closed its doors temporarily on March 14, ultimately deciding that schools would remain closed through the end of the school year and shifting from in-person education to e-learning for the remainder of the spring semester.
Freed from the strain of social anxieties, some students have thrived in their new learning environments. Others, though, are struggling to muster enthusiasm to continue their education and are facing mental health challenges. They’re worrying what the next school year will look like, and, more broadly, how this will impact the rest of their academic lives.
Wood River High School Social Worker Julie Carney has seen both sides.
The School District has tried to streamline communications and limit the number of emails sent to students in hopes of reducing the amount of time spent online for education purposes. “They get deluged,” Carney said. But knowing when to help and when to back off is difficult when she can’t meet with students in person, and different students may have different needs right now.
Overall, though, the cancellation created a pervasive sense of loss felt by students and teachers.
“There’s actually a grieving process that we’re going through,” she said.
That sensation is strongest in graduating seniors, whose 13 years of education came to an abrupt end. Now, they face new challenges in deciding their college careers in a post-COVID-19 world. Carney said these seniors should be thought of as pioneers, trailblazing into a new reality.
“They’re a beacon of resilience and perseverance,” she said.
Tod Gunter, a social worker for Wood River Middle School, shared that sentiment.
“Our kids are pretty resilient,” he said.
Building healthy habits
Resilience is key for kids getting through this pandemic, Lydia Missal, a licensed clinical professional counselor at St. Luke’s Clinic in Hailey, told the Express. For many, she said, the pandemic is a traumatic event that “completely throws their lives upside down.”
While the old science of trauma would have distinguished between a “big trauma,” such as a sudden death or violent event, and a “little trauma,” such as a minor car accident, today’s view tells us that trauma is trauma—big or small. For many, this experience will prove to be a traumatic event in their lives.
“Everyone’s response is normal,” Missal said, because there is no set standard for how to survive a pandemic. For some, this time of self-isolation may act as the catalyst that they needed to reassess and take action in their lives.
“If we slow down enough, we can turn into our internal wisdom,” she said.
For students, this has also been an opportunity to look outside of themselves and serve the greater good by doing their part to self-isolate and maintain social distancing measures with friends, according to School District therapist Laurie Strand.
Strand, who is involved in the Blaine Recovery Committee and is a member of the 5B Suicide Prevention Alliance, said that beyond being aware of those around us and keeping an eye out for signs of distress, learning the healthy habits of emotional well-being is also important now.
Those habits include taking care of yourself by eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep and exercise, checking in with those you trust to talk about your emotional well-being, maintaining friendships and nurturing new relationships, and finding time in your day to relax and do something that calms you.
Strand reminds parents that the way teenagers connect with one another may look different than how adults might, but that’s OK.
According to Missal, a traumatic event on the body is defined by a charge and release of emotions, something that is too much too fast. It varies from person to person, based on the individual’s perspective. Because the nervous system naturally responds to trauma and stress in its own way, one way to work through a traumatic event or time period is by focusing attention on things that can be controlled.
This pandemic will prove to have both short- and long-term effects on everyone’s mental health, Missal said. She recommends journaling or taking notes of moments of appreciation. Ask yourself what you can learn during this time, or how can you grow, Missal said. That way, the body’s natural sensors can grow stronger and more resilient to trauma and stress. By recognizing the silver lining, people’s bodies and minds can naturally shift from a place of fear to a process of growth and evolution by restructuring their world view.
“We don’t have to be good, or happy. We can be OK,” Missal said.
For others worrying about food, shelter and safety, this may be a time to step up and help where needed—whether that be sharing meals with siblings, caring for older or disabled relatives, or taking charge of the household while parents go back to work.
Checking in—and getting help
In finding a more meaningful way to connect with students while they learn from home, Strand developed a check-in form now being used countywide. The forms are being sent either every week or every other week depending on the school. It allows students to respond with a range of answers, and presents opportunities for them to learn skills to help them during this time. It also gives them a chance to seek additional help with their mental or physical well-being.
Carney, the high school social worker, said that about 12 percent of students, most of them freshmen, have responded to the check-in form. About 20 to 25 percent of Gunter’s middle schoolers have responded and 95 percent of those students report that they’re doing fine. A “minimal number” report being in mental distress, Gunter said.
Gunter said the kids who have reported struggling are not only those who were al-ready struggling in a normal classroom set-
ting, but also the high-achieving students.
“It’s really thrown them for a loop,” he said.
In addition, Gunter said, if the adults in a household are stressed, that emotion trickles down to children.
“I call them the barometers of the family—if the parents are struggling, the kids are struggling,” he said. Both Gunter and Carney sympathized with parents—many of whom are managing bills, uncertain employment, and, now, guiding their children’s educational experience at home.
“They’re just trying to juggle so much right now,” Gunter said.
Parents, he added, are living through this pandemic, too.
“All we can do is walk this path with them,” Carney said.
The at-home learning is particularly difficult for dual-language families because it assumes that parents can educate their kids. However, some parents may not speak English or have much formal education themselves, Gunter said.
“Educators expect education will be a priority,” Gunter said, but that is often not the case for many students he knows. “We don’t have anything that’s targeted for them right now.”
For everyone, this is a learning curve, Gunter said, and the School District will continue to look at all systems to see for whom it’s working and for whom it isn’t. Expectations, like protocols, may need to change if remote learning is forced to continue.
Right now, social workers agree that connection is more important than curriculum. Checking in with students and being gentle with their needs will ultimately prove to be more valuable today than learning the Pythagorean theorem.
The community in the Wood River Valley has stuck to its values of compassion, support and uplifting one another, Carney told the Express. She graduated from Wood River High School in 1984, and said she continues to be amazed by how many examples of community support she’s seen through the pandemic so far.
“That’s the reason we live here,” she said. “We’re all just doing the best we can, we’re all in this together.