May 18—Since Hazleton Area students had the option to return to classrooms a month ago, pressures that lead to mental health problems have lessened, two counselors said.
"The mental health issues that were exhibited during virtual instruction appear to be much more manageable now that students are back in the classroom," Nicholas Flaim, a psychologist for Hazleton Area schools, said.
Alyssa Hyduk, guidance counselor at Hazleton Area High School, said students seem more motivated now that they're studying in person.
"I see a lot more students asking how to get their grades up and explaining they are happy to be back," Hyduk said in an email. "Earlier in the year, I was trying to reach them just to find out if they are unmotivated, anxious, depressed, lonely."
In December, Flaim, Hyduk and other psychologists and counselors in Hazleton Area schools started meeting virtually to plan how to help children with mental health issues during the pandemic.
If they need to refer children to specialists, professionals from agencies including Lehigh Valley Health Network, Pathway to Recovery, Northeast Counseling and Children's Service Center are ready to help.
During the pandemic, studies indicate that children are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, Sheri Madigan, a clinical psychologist from the University of Calgary, said Wednesday during a briefing with reporters. Madigan pointed to studies showing 11.5% of youths were depressed before the pandemic. During the pandemic, levels rose to 25.6% for middle schoolers, 39.9% for pre-schoolers and 55% for "tweens."
Madigan and Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology, said they expect mental health problems will persist even as cases of COVID-19 decrease. People with mental health problems, Koenen said at the briefing organized by the nonpartisan group, SciLine, are more likely to develop biological health problems and live shorter lives.
Dr. Ruth Shim, a psychiatrist at University of California, Davis, who also spoke at the briefing, said adverse experiences in childhood or with the criminal justice system can lead to poor mental health, as can discrimination, poverty and housing insecurity.
For children and teenagers, Madigan listed four indications of looming mental health issues: pre-pandemic problems with anxiety or depression, less sleep and more screen time during the pandemic, and a feeling that they're disconnected from parents.
She asked family doctors to ask parents and children about their mental health.
To schools and school counselors, Madigan gave good marks for switching counseling sessions online when necessary.
With federal pandemic funds, she suggested schools host virtual seminars for parents about topics such as re-establishing routines that the pandemic disrupted as children studied from home.
"There's been some great research," Madigan said, "showing that when families are using routines ... when sleep routines, screen routines and school routines are consistent, kids are doing better."
Among Hazleton Area school students, Flaim also said routines and schedules provide comfort.
During the pandemic, even adults have had trouble maintaining a line between work and leisure time when doing jobs from home, so imagine the difficulty that children have while studying form home, Flaim said.
"They do not have the ability to compartmentalize like us," he said.
In contrast, some children thrived while studying at home. They might feel anxious about returning to classes in person and being among their classmates and teachers again.
"Offering options for these students moving forward," Flaim said by email, "may further the ability of the district to continue meeting students where they are and delivering curriculum in the most appropriate way possible."
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