Q&A: Mental health expert talks emotional well-being, building resiliency for the 2020-21 school year

Dr. Molly Lopez is the director of the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health and also serves as a research associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. (Designed by Stephanie Torres/Community Impact Newspaper)
Dr. Molly Lopez is the director of the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health and also serves as a research associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. (Designed by Stephanie Torres/Community Impact Newspaper)

Dr. Molly Lopez is the director of the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health and also serves as a research associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. (Designed by Stephanie Torres/Community Impact Newspaper)

As schools across the state navigate reopening for the 2020-21 academic year amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, students, parents and teachers are having to readjust to a new learning environment whether in person or online.

Dr. Molly Lopez, director of the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health and a research associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, said in addition to providing a safe environment for students' and teachers' physical health, school administrators may have to take on new approaches to mental health in the upcoming year.

“This can be an opportunity ... for important learning that—not just students—but all of us can do," Lopez said. "Difficult times like this are challenges that are an opportunity for us to learn skills in coping and ... builds our resiliency.”

What will students be dealing with as they return this school year?

We can surmise that students have had a variety of different experiences over the past number of months. Families have been impacted in different ways by the pandemic and the social distancing and the school closures. We can expect that some families have been struggling with changes, such as loss of job or loss of income and even things like food insecurity. We can also suspect that many families have also been struggling with illnesses and even deaths in their families. Students and families have probably been struggling with the consequences of social isolation, not having some of the support systems that they may normally have available to them available during this time. They will be bringing all of those stressors back to school in whatever version that their campus may be coming back.

We then add on the stressors that may be a part of a return to school, which at times involves uncertainty about what that's going to look like and what it may look like in our coming weeks and months. That also adds stress as well as the challenges of ensuring that we are protecting our own health or protecting the health of our teachers and school staff and that students are protecting the health of their families back in their homes, who may either still be isolating [or] may be exposed through their children.

As social distancing measures change the way students interact with each other in classrooms and extracurriculars, what are students losing out on as a result of COVID-19? How can this affect their mental health?

We know that one of the things that's really important to students' mental health and their well-being generally is their connection to schools. Connection can come from a variety of different means—it comes from our opportunities to engage with our peers; it comes from the relationships we have with teachers and staff; and it comes from our commitment involvement and extracurricular activities. Those are going to be things that are more challenging as kids return to school and call for us to be more creative about ways that we can continue to help students feel connected to other students, staff and teachers, and those extracurricular activities that allow them to dive into their strengths and engage in things that they feel good and passionate about.

What effect could remote learning have on the mental health of students? Are there any potential benefits?

Different students are going to have different experiences with remote learning. For some, they may find it even more engaging than in-person. In some ways, they may find it easier to organize their own school and homework activities and feel more in control of their learning process, and they really enjoy interacting through a web-based platform. Other students are going to find it more challenging. They may feel less able to pay attention, less able to engage and less able to structure their learning on their own.

That all plays a big role in mental health and our understanding of our ability to manage school, which is of course one of the most important things that are happening in young people's lives. It is a big part of who they are; it is their role as a student. Offering opportunities for students to be successful and to engage in ways that are going to build their self-esteem as students and their self-esteem as active learners is going to be an important way for teachers to think about remote and hybrid learning.

What advice do you have for parents in maintaining mental health with their students at home?

Let me just start off by saying that both teachers and parents have a lot of challenges, and we need to be very empathic towards how challenging this time is going to be for parents, teachers and school administrators.

For parents, thinking about how best to support their students' sense of safety and normality is going to be important. So, creating some structure for students in their day, that is something that we've lost in the pandemic; building some opportunities for structure. For example, building in times in between online classes where they're able to do some activity, use some of their energy, but things that are understandable: 'This is going to come next after this particular class that we do,' helps build that sense of safety and normality for kids; and then being watchful of our students, not overreacting when students get stressed but really watching for how our children are coping with the challenges that are ahead.

When parents do identify concerns when there are things that they are worried about, reach out for additional support from the school or from others in their life, such as other parents, pediatricians, et cetera. We want to make sure that as students are needing support, that there's access to that support and that can be a bit more challenging as well. It may be harder for teachers to identify when kids need that support if they're providing classes online, and parents may be an even more important part. They're always of course vitally important to that, but even more [now] in recognizing when their kids are struggling and may need additional support.

This can be an opportunity as well for important learning that—not just students—but all of us can do. Difficult times like this are challenges that are an opportunity for us to learn skills in coping and how to get through challenges that builds our resiliency. Offering kids ideas about how to do that can be really helpful, not just now but in the future as they experience additional challenges. Helping them understand how they're feeling, expressing how they're feeling, thinking about how to care for themselves, do self care and learn some of those skills, thinking about how to problem-solve some of the challenges they may be experiencing—those are lessons that both teachers and parents can provide; they're going to help kids throughout their life, really.

Do you have any other advice to add for teachers in classrooms?

Schools and administrators need to be really thinking about our teachers’ well-being and mental health as well. Both as parents and as teachers we have to start with our own well-being. Teachers are also going through stressors; their families are also impacted by this, and they're also impacted by potential health risks. We have to focus a lot of energy on how we support our teachers in their mental health and their well-being.

This is a time for us to really invest in social and emotional learning skills for kids. This is a great time for teachers to be thinking about, as they always do, but it seems even more important now, how we build skills around recognizing how we're feeling, around coping with how we're feeling, around empathy for our other students and supporting others and how they're feeling. It's a nice time to be teaching some of those skills that are important all the time, but are things that are going to help us be more resilient during these challenging times.

The other thing that's going to be super important for teachers to be thinking about is how we rebuild the sense of connection that students have with school and with [teachers] as individuals. Learning as well as resiliency all depend on relationships, and teachers are such important relationships for students and so focusing on developing those strong relationships, spending some time doing that, figuring out any kids that may not be connecting in the way that we would want and how we build those relationships for those students. It's going to be a really important focus of the fall.

How should school districts approach mental health as students return to classrooms in person and online?

Supporting teachers and their well-being, supporting those activities and programs that support mental health promotion, finding creative ways to reach out and support those students who may be falling through the cracks. I know at the end of the school year, there were some students that when we went to online it was challenging for teachers to really re-engage with them, and they may have lost contact with some of those students. Going into the fall we need to have more well-developed strategies to really try and re-engage those students who may be less likely to engage in school coming back in. That can be creative things—for example, identifying coaches that could reconnect with those young people or bus drivers or nursing staff. It doesn't all have to fall on our teachers; there are other staff who may have good relationships with those students who could be the ones trying to re-engage them.

One of the other things that districts need to be thinking about is the protocols and processes they have in place to address crises, whether those are crises around a death in the school community or crises around mental health. Hopefully most schools have those protocols in place, but we need to be really looking at them and seeing what may need to change when our school systems are looking different. How are we identifying those kids who may be having a mental health crisis? What are our plans for how we're going to support them and make sure they're safe and then support them and getting access to services in the COVID-19 world?

What insight do you have on the current availability and ease of access to mental health services for students in schools? What can be done to expand that access, especially for students without health insurance and other potential barriers?

The extent to which schools are able to provide mental health support varies dramatically across the state [of Texas]. There are some schools that have developed some pretty amazing mental health systems within their schools; they have partnerships with community providers; they may have school-based providers as well; and they've developed systems to identify the level of need that a student may have and track them into the appropriate services, whether they're on campus by campus-based providers or within the community.

There are other schools where that's been much more challenging, especially our rural schools and small schools where there are workforce shortages and other financial challenges as well. In terms of how we might strengthen that, there is a lot of amazing work happening in the state right now. There was recent legislation passed in the last legislative session for schools to develop safe and supportive school systems. Schools are really starting to think a lot about how to develop their systems, again, to partner with community providers and to really create processes for identifying students who may have additional needs and getting them into appropriate services. There are going to be challenges, especially with the pandemic taking a lot of focus right now, because administrators are working hard to figure out how to bring students back—how to keep them physically and mentally healthy. Creating new systems takes a lot of investment of time, and even funding, and the pandemic is making that more challenging. But, there's a lot of energy behind it, and the Texas Education Agency is developing resources and really supporting educational service centers who provide training and technical assistance to campuses—really trying to support the development of school mental health, across the state. It's an exciting time; it's much-needed; but there's a lot of momentum.

We also need to recognize that the pandemic has brought to light a number of disparities in communities. That needs to also be taken into consideration as we think about how we support students and promote their well-being during this time. We need to recognize that the pandemic and the consequences of the pandemic has impacted communities of color more dramatically. We need to keep that in our minds as we think about how to structure support for students as we come back to school.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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