Innovations in Education: Mental Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic – Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

Innovations in Education: Mental Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Last year, all of us experienced a mentally challenging year and are finally feeling some stress relief as vaccines have become more widely available across the state. During a Mental Health America of Kentucky webinar last week, Gov. Andy Beshear noted that $19.5 million in federal funds have been allocated for mental health outside of schools, and more is available for this important cause in the education portion of the American Recovery Plan.

Our Innovations in Education conversation on May 12 focused on K-12 schools and Kentucky’s public universities and the mental health needs of students, educators and families.

Joining us for the conversation were:

  • Secretary Eric Friedlander, Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
  • Marcie Timmerman, Executive Director for Mental Health America of Kentucky
  • Goldie Williams, Director of Counseling and Health Services at Morehead State University; and
  • Amy Beal, Comprehensive School Counselor for Campbell County Schools and the 2020 Kentucky School Counselor of the Year

Key Takeaways:

In our K-12 and higher education Coping with COVID surveys, the need for more mental health supports for students, educators and families was a prevalent theme.

  • 35% of high school students surveyed said that they wanted mental health services, but didn’t have access to them.
  • 36% of teachers said they wanted more access to mental health services.
  • 21% of families said they would benefit from more mental health services.
  • 74% of current college students said they have felt an increase of mental or emotional exhaustion due to COVID-19.

Friedlander says that all of us have been impacted by the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having far-reaching impacts on behavioral health.

“This is something that’s really new to us, and how we respond with changes to our behavioral health system is important,” said Friedlander. “We’ve responded very well in Kentucky, allowing a lot more telehealth, taking away prior authorizations for Medicaid, and redoubled our efforts with the Department of Education to provide services within schools.”

Prior to the pandemic, he said, there was already a shortage of mental health providers, and this issue will be especially exacerbated as we move to the next phase of the pandemic, when behavioral health problems really start to surface. People who have been isolated and have had a lack of socialization opportunities for more than a year will soon present with behavioral health challenges.

The Mental Health America of Kentucky group has created Tools to Thrive, which were created for all citizens and can prevent mental health hospitalizations. There are also screening tools available on the organization’s website for parents who are concerned about their children’s mental health.

Before the pandemic, Amy Beal, the school counselor for Donald E. Cline Elementary in Cold Spring already had a robust plan to improve the mental health of the schools’ students, educators and families. From sending self-care tips to staff, to hosting individual student therapy, and school-wide bullying prevention, students were well cared for. That care paid off when the pandemic began and students already had background knowledge of social-emotional skills, and both students and parents were aware of the school’s counseling supports.

“We’ve fielded more phone calls from parents than we’ve ever fielded in the past,” said Beal. “Parents need to remember that these feelings of uncertainty they are having and their children are having are normal. We all need to embrace self-care and take time for ourselves.”

College students are experiencing depression, anxiety and a lack of hope, according to Goldie Williams, which will lead to a high occurrence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Morehead State University and many other public higher education facilities have provided ongoing mental health supports throughout the pandemic to deal with these issues, but many are feeling hopeful now that vaccines have become readily available.

“There is this hope of getting back to a spirit of community,” said Friedlander. “We don’t have answers on what everything will look like moving forward, and that feeling leads to a lot of anxiety. But we now know that we can exist virtually, so now we have to innovate and think outside of walls so that we can maximize the school and community impact on each other.”

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