Since the pandemic started, experts have warned of a mental health crisis facing American children that is now visibly playing out at schools across the country.
Benito Luna-Herrera, a 7th grade social studies teacher in Southern California, tells of middle school students whose post-pandemic depression led them to thoughts of suicide. Other educators say they have never seen so much school violence, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide ideation.
The silver lining in Luna-Herrera’s case is that special training helped him know what to look for and how to respond to signs of a mental emergency. He is among a small but growing number of California teachers and school staff to take a course called Youth Mental Health First Aid. It teaches adults how to spot warning signs of mental health risks and substance abuse in children, and how to prevent a tragedy.
The California Department of Education funds the program for any school district requesting it, and the pandemic has accelerated moves to make such courses a state requirement. The training program is operated by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing and available in every state.
“I don’t want to read about another teenager where there were warning signs and we looked the other way,” said Sen. Anthony Portantino, author of a bill that would require all California middle and high schools to train at least 75% of employees in behavioral health. “Teachers and school staff are on the front lines of a crisis, and need to be trained to spot students who are suffering.”
Experts say childhood depression and anxiety were on the rise for years, but the pandemic’s unrelenting stress and grief amplified the problems, particularly for those already experiencing mental health issues who were cut off from counselors and other school resources during distance learning.
In low-income areas, where adverse childhood experiences were high before the pandemic, the crisis is even more acute and compounded by a shortage of school staff and mental health professionals.
Many states have mandated teacher training on suicide prevention over the last decade and the pandemic prompted some to broaden the scope to include mental health awareness and supporting behavioral health needs.
President Joe Biden has proposed $1 billion in new federal funding to help schools hire more counselors and psychologists and bolster suicide prevention programs. That followed a rare pubic advisory in December from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on “the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.”
Many children bounced back after the extended isolation of distance learning, but for others it will take longer, and mental health problems often lag a stressor.
“We can’t assume that ‘OK we’re back in school, it’s been a few months and now everyone should be back to normal.’ That is not the case,” said Sharon Hoover, professor of child psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health.
The Youth Mental Health First Aid course helps distinguish typical adolescent behavior from warning signs of mental distress, which can be blatant or subtle. After noticing something might be wrong, the course teaches that the next step is to ask the student without pressuring or casting judgement and letting them know you care and want to help.
Luna-Herrera, the social studies teacher at California City Middle School, took the course in spring 2021 and two weeks later put it to use.
One of his 12-year-old students felt her world was falling apart. Distance learning had upended her friendships. Things with her boyfriend were verging on violent. Her home life was stressful. “I’m just done with it,” the girl told Luna-Herrera, and shared a detailed plan to kill herself.
The course teaches how to handle such a crisis: Raise the alarm and get expert help. Do not leave a person contemplating suicide alone. Luna-Herrera continued talking to the girl while also getting school administrators and police involved.
“He absolutely saved that child’s life,” said Mojave Unified Superintendent Katherine Aguirre, who oversees the district of about 3,000 students, the majority of whom are Latino and Black children from economically disadvantaged families.
Another advocate for training teachers is Harry Bruell, who hopes it can prevent the tragedy his family endured. His daughter, Taya, died of suicide when she was 14.
Soon after her death, Bruell found a journal she had kept as part of an assignment for her Colorado high school. In it, Taya drew a disturbing portrait that showed self-harm and wrote about how much she hated her body and was hearing voices she wanted to silence.
Her teacher read the assignment and wrote: “Taya, very thorough journal. I loved reading the entries. A+” The teacher never told the school counselor or administrators about it. Three months later, in February 2016, Taya killed herself.
“I don’t think the teacher wanted to hurt our daughter. I think she had no idea what to do when she read those stark warning signs in Taya’s journal,” said her father.
He believes legislation to require teacher training in behavioral health will save lives. “It teaches you to raise the alarm, and not just walk away.”