Local counseling centers and experts said they expect to see an increase in demand for mental health services from school-age youth in the 2020-21 school year as students, educators and families learn to navigate a new world of covered faces and virtual classrooms.

According to Sherry Burkhard, executive director of the Magnolia-based mental health resource center
Mosaics of Mercy, many students can feel overwhelmed when dealing with the pressure of new classes, teachers and schedules amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“If [students] are already stressed because of what's going on with the pandemic and in their household and things like that, then you add in the school stress, I anticipate that we're going to continue to see an increase [in demand for mental health services],” Burkhard said.

In a previous interview with Community Impact Newspaper, Burkhard said she had seen the pandemic take a toll on mental health in the aftermath of surges in unemployment, losses of routine and feelings of isolation.

Although Montgomery County youth service provider and nonprofit Yes to Youth generally sees a decline in requests for counseling services during the summer months, Director of Counseling Services Adriana Gutierrez said there has been a recent uptick in clients seeking services as a result of stresses when entering the new school year.

“Within the last two weeks we have seen more requests for services coming,” Gutierrez said in an Aug. 27 email. “Most are seeking services for anxiety and depression related to isolation and or anxiety of school reopening.”

The nonprofit, which has an office in Magnolia, offers free counseling services for young people ages 6-17 and transitioned to provide telehealth alternatives for services at the pandemic's onset this spring, Gutierrez said.

Yes to Youth also initiated summer-long virtual groups such as Girls Talk, a virtual support group for girls in intermediate and secondary schools. Other virtual services include a skills group to help youth learn to manage anxiety and depression in addition to groups for parents and grandparents. Gutierrez said these groups have been paused but are slated to be offered again in September.

Anyone in need of immediate assistance is encouraged to call Yes To Youth’s 24-Hour Crisis Hotline at 888-756-8682, she said.

“The hotline is answered by one of our counselors, and we are ready to assist with resource information and crisis intervention,” Gutierrez said.

Kim Huff-Howard, licensed professional counselor and owner of Tomball-area Counseling Creations, said her center has also seen the pandemic’s effect on clients who have already received prior treatment.

“[In] March everybody [said], 'Oh, it'll go away,' and then April hit and it hadn't gone away, and we started seeing an upsurge of anxiety adjustment, depression, suicidal ideation and things of that nature,” Huff-Howard said. “I've had clients that were off and learning on their own, doing great, that are suddenly coming back, and it's because of this new cherry on top of everything they're trying to handle.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in six young people ages 6-17 in the U.S. experiences a mental health disorder every year, and half of all lifelong mental illnesses begin by age 14.

Despite these numbers, Neal Sarahan, NAMI Greater Houston Executive Director, said there is often a large gap between the onset of mental disorders and receiving treatment among individuals. For example, in 2016, 50.6% of people in the U.S. ages 6-17 with mental disorders received treatment.

“The time period between the first episode of serious mental illness and the treatment plan to begin is about 10 years,” Sarahan said. “So, our youth are waiting ... too long for evidence-based interventions to have their impact.”

Dana Spinler, a licensed professional counselor at Counseling Resource Center—which has offices in Magnolia and Conroe—suggested families help relieve students’ stress in small ways at home, such as by massaging areas where tension might build up in the body like the shoulders or back. In addition, Spinler said incorporating events or activities into students' schedules can help students establish clear routines to foster stability in an uncertain environment.

“[Try] to find ... an activity or an event and [set] it up in a way that it's something to look forward to; [make] some aspect of this [pandemic] have an end date ... so that it doesn't seem like things keep going and going and going,” Spinler said. “That's actually where trauma gets developed, is that you don't see an end in sight.”

Should students need additional support in maintaining mental health, however, Spinler advises families to seek professional assistance and counseling.

“[Look] at the emotional identity of the child, how it's changed, and seek counseling, because there can be a lot of things that can help in just a few sessions to get them back on track and know how to handle what's going on in their bodies,” Spinler said.

Oftentimes, students’ mental health can be affected by other sources, such as parents and educators.

“The adults in the students life—the educators [and] the parents—how they're modeling, how they have conversations, how they share their feelings—is sending a message to the kids about how to do that,” Burkhard said. “It's really important for educators and parents to be taking care of their own mental health so we're showing kids how to do that as well right now.”

Nonetheless, Burkhard emphasized educators and families to maintain a watchful eye on students and their mental health during the school year.

“It's really important for everyone ... to be on the lookout for kids that are struggling,” Burkhard said. “It really requires everyone that's coming in contact with that kid [to be attentive] because we all may be a little more distracted than usual.”

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