Closing system

Texas shooting further tests students’ sanity

Alison Yin for EdSource

Depression and anxiety have skyrocketed among young people in recent years.

For many young people, Tuesday’s massacre at a Texas elementary school couldn’t come at a worse time. The emotional scars of the pandemic linger and schools close for the summer, cutting students off from their routines and access to campus mental health services.

But in some ways, students and schools are better prepared than ever to deal with tragedies like that at Robb Elementary School. Investment in youth mental health is at an all-time high in California, and some schools’ relentless focus on emotional well-being has reduced stigma and led to a plethora of mental health options that don’t didn’t exist a few years ago.

“Schools have been so focused on how we can support each other with mental health,” said Melissa Wood, a school psychologist with a Kern County Special Education Consortium. “There’s still a lot of work to do, but I think we’re on the right track.”

Tuesday’s shooting, in which a gunman in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 children and two teachers, followed less than two weeks after a shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, left 10 dead. The tragedies come at the end of a difficult year for students and school staff as they struggled with learning loss and behavioral and emotional challenges related to the pandemic. Although some students have endured the pandemic with little adversity, others have lost loved ones to Covid, seen their parents lose their jobs or become seriously ill, and have struggled intensely with remote school work or caring for younger siblings.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, consecutive difficulties can cause some children to experience “complex trauma,” which can have longer-lasting and more severe effects on children’s well-being than a single traumatic event. Prolonged “fight or flight” responses can affect children’s ability to learn, form attachments, regulate behavior, and make decisions. Complex trauma can also affect children’s physical health well into adulthood, leading to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

“The aggravating trauma is real. It can literally shape a child’s development,” said Chris Williams, director of school mental health and wellbeing at the Sacramento Office of Education. “The higher your score (negative childhood experiences), the more likely you are to experience adverse effects.”

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a former surgeon general in California, has made childhood trauma a cornerstone of her work. She encouraged schools to screen students for trauma, provide extensive counseling services, and teach social and emotional skills in the classroom.

Since the pandemic, Governor Gavin Newsom and the Legislative Assembly have invested millions in youth mental health, on school campuses, within the healthcare system and in the community. The state has encouraged districts to open mental health clinics and wellness centers on campus, contract with local clinics to provide therapy services, hire more counselors, invest in l social-emotional learning, train teachers to recognize signs of trauma, start peer counseling programs and take other steps to help students cope with depression and anxiety.

The Sacramento County Office of Education recently partnered with the county public health department to bring mental health clinicians to every school in the county, adding to the schools’ existing board staff. Other counties and districts have taken similar steps to streamline links between schools and public health departments, so students can access free mental health care whenever they need it.

These kinds of day-to-day systemic changes are needed if schools are to see long-term improvements in students’ emotional well-being, Williams said. Responding to incidents like school shootings is important, he said, but student mental health should be an ongoing priority.

“We need to move away from the notion of mental health ‘treatment’,” he said. “Trauma is not an isolated incident. A school shooting is a horrific event, period, but it’s only one thing students can experience.

Parents, teachers and other adults can do a lot to help children deal with trauma, Wood said. For young children, play and art can help them overcome feelings of sadness, fear or confusion. Older students can learn healthy, non-destructive ways to cope, such as talking to friends or trusted adults, exercising, writing in a journal, making art, being alone or going somewhere safe and let off steam.

Wood encouraged parents to take advantage of the summer months to slow down and relax with their children.

“Take advantage of every opportunity you have with your children,” she said. “Put the phone down. Spend time with them one-on-one. It will strengthen their bond with you. I think collectively we all need more of that.

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