Opinion: Students, now more than ever, need better access to mental health resources

Natalia Habas, Editor-in-Chief

It’s an understatement to say that a pandemic has a so many negative consequences. Many socioeconomic, environmental, political and cultural factors have been altered as a result of the pandemic, and although all of these areas are important, a commonly overlooked factor is the emotional imprint that Covid-19 has left on students.

With a concern for the physical safety and health of people, most schools in the Chicago suburbs have not fully reopened for the 2020-21 school year. As a result, the majority of students in the United States are currently learning online. Regardless of age, grade or level of education, these students are learning in this virtual format for the first time. 

While this may be the best option to maintain physical health and control the outbreak of Covid-19, research and data have shown that it most certainly is not helping citizens’ mental health.

That goes for students especially. 

As a high school student, I believe that the importance of mental health is already generally overlooked by school administrators, teachers and parents. Not only is it perceived as a taboo topic among many, but there are not enough resources for mental health for students while students are distance learning.

Now, it would make sense that during unprecedented and stressful times like these, I would receive more support and resources for my mental health than I usually do. Yet I found myself struggling with my mental health more than ever while transitioning to online learning during Covid-19. And then I quickly found that my peers and other students feel the same way. 

Shifting the focus to mental health

I think I can safely say that mental health is, unfortunately, not a focus for many schools at the moment. As someone who intends to pursue a career in the psychology field, I immediately knew I had to learn more about this topic, as discussing it at a time like this is ideal for the exigency of my research. Mental health should be discussed more than ever right now, especially for teenagers.

As I conducted some informal research, I found that students share common feelings about the way their mental health is being handled by their school. Most students feel that mental health is a neglected subject among teachers and administrators. Several students have said to me that they lack support.

Take Salma Causevic as an example. Causevic, a senior at Elk Grove, has rarely struggled with her mental health. She describes herself as responsible, over-achieving and ambitious. However, while transitioning to online classes at the start of the 2020-21 school year, she found her mental health “getting bad.” Causevic said that she felt prepared to transition to online learning when she considered the idea. Yet the reality of the situation was much different. 

“After a while, I didn’t really have the motivation to get up in the mornings just to stare at a computer screen all day,” Causevic said. “Plus, I would stay up all night at the beginning of quarantine, and adjusting my sleep schedule for school was brutal.”

A lack of motivation itself is directly connected to well-being and mental state. Being unmotivated is a symptom of depression as well, but adding an irregular sleep schedule makes the situation even worse.

In an article from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “researchers objectively measured sleep and circadian rhythms, and the association to academic performance in college students.” In summary, they discovered that “irregular patterns of sleep and wakefulness correlated with lower grade point average, delayed sleep/wake timing, and delayed release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin.”

Irregular sleep schedules are surely not being improved with online school days starting as early as 8:45 a.m. for Zero Hour. After months of having an irregular sleep schedule, students are expected to wake up for school and be able to learn. 

“I think getting up for school is a struggle for a lot of students,” Causevic said. 

Causevic isn’t the only student struggling with getting up for school. In a non-scientific Instagram poll I conducted, about 85 percent of about 500 student responses concluded that they had a “hard time getting up for classes.”

In addition, the Instagram poll showed that students’ mental health has worsened overall since transitioning to online learning during Covid-19.

One of the questions I asked in my Instagram poll was, “Why is your mental health improving or worsening?” In response, students listed a variety of reasons. Since most students stated that their mental health is worsening, the reasons varied from having too much homework to simply being overwhelmed with how they have to learn everything online and by themselves without the same support they have while they are in school buildings.

The need for emotional support

The state of one’s mental health and well-being can be impacted by endless things. Each student has a different state of mind, home environment, work climate and other factors that can play a role in one’s mental health. Identifying these variables was difficult because each student is different. Although almost each student had a different reason for why their mental health was declining, I found that a common reason between the population of students was the lack of emotional support they were receiving from their school.

When students are in the building for school, they usually have several social and emotional support systems. Whether it is a friend that they are able to talk to in class every day, a school psychologist or a support group, students are surrounded by emotional assistance.

According to the Instagram poll, about 70 percent of students said that they had more resources available to them when they were in the building for school. 

In addition, a text from Emotional Support and Student Learning by Nancy Protheroe, an educational researcher, said that “there is a clear theoretical base for connecting students’ feelings of emotional security and their ability to focus on learning.”

I want to mention a popular theory that is studied in psychology, known as Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The theory consists of a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

Students who have their needs for safety, belonging, and self-esteem met—as well as their basic physiological needs—possess an important foundation for building knowledge.

Without meeting their physiological needs, students are more likely to fall behind academically. 

After interpreting my informal Instagram data, it’s easy to assume that students are struggling with their mental health while online learning and are unhappy with how schools are approaching the topic.

While students are learning online at home, they obviously do not have the social and emotional support systems that they usually would. Taking away that part of a students’ day can be extremely damaging not only to their emotional well-being but to their academic performance. 

What solutions and responses exist?

Improving mental health is very different for each individual. It is almost impossible to meet each student’s needs. So what can school authorities do to improve this situation? 

Openly addressing the situation is a place to start. Recognizing that there is a problem and creating a discussion about it is the first step to improving it. Mental health has always had the infamous reputation of being a taboo topic in society. Changing the perspective people have on mental health is the first step to reshaping it. 

As a student myself, I know kids can be scared or ashamed to reach out for help. If teachers, parents and administrators are encouraging students to reach out frequently, students will feel more comfortable discussing their mental health.

Being consistent with encouraging students to reach out is also just as important. Mental health is always important and relevant, not just for the first few weeks that the idea is discussed. Following up with students will make them feel that they are cared about and that they have someone they can always depend on. Having even one person that students can depend on can make a huge difference. 

A specific solution that can be implemented to improve mental health and open up discussion about it is simply asking students to share how they feel. A consistent Google Form with questions regarding students’ mental health can easily help schools identify who is struggling and who needs help. Not only will this make students feel that their mental health is important but it would directly help to solve the problem and reshape how mental health is perceived.

Increasing access to resources is the next step. For example, administrators and others need to push for more outlets for students to express their emotions without consequences is vital. With online learning, students do not have the resources that they usually have when they are in the building for school. Ensuring that students have the resources they need is extremely important. 

As a start, Elk Grove High School has been sending out emails for Mental Health Week. With this, students have the opportunity to learn more about the subject of mental health. Not only does this raise awareness to the issue, but it gives students an outlet to reach out and improve their own state. 

Implementing changes to how mental health is handled by schools during online learning is what students need more than ever. Mental health will always be an important topic. Implementing the smallest changes can make a huge impact on a student. If students start to see improvement with mental health awareness, they are far more likely to reach out and get the help they need.

Taking small steps to improve mental health for students will result in a far more comfortable and positive learning environment, as well as improving students’ overall well-being.