The last few months have tested all of us – particularly our kids. Our young people have endured school closures, the loss of employment in their families, and a strained ability to connect with teachers, loved ones, and friends. Our kids are stressed.
Black children and teens in particular have experienced acute trauma caused by disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 and repeated police violence playing out in communities across the country. The effect, researchers say, is a concerning public health crisis of suicide rates now rising faster among Black teens than their white peers.
Stress is mounting with school now underway, virtually for more than half of North Carolina children. Kids are facing big changes to learning environments, massive uncertainty, and continued restrictions on in-person connection on top of stressors they’re experiencing at home. This is a critical time for our state’s leaders to put children’s mental health at the top of their agendas. Stable, well-funded schools are a key piece of that agenda.
School Nurses and Mental Health Personnel are Crucial
A key part of children’s mental health is the support, structure, routine, and social interaction they receive from school. Regular contact with trained, caring adults keeps kids safer. Even in districts starting the year with virtual learning, school nurses and social workers are checking on the health and wellbeing of students and their families and providing supportive resources, according to Donna Mayzyck, Executive Director of National Association of School Nurses. There’s “uncertainty, grief and fear that’s come because of COVID-19,” says Mazyck. “They will need support from trusted adults at school.” Nurses are trained to play that role and monitor children for red flags.
With COVID-19 a persistent threat, the importance of having health personnel in every school building has never been more critical. Yet in some North Carolina school districts, one nurse splits their time among two, three or even five different schools. (Learn more about the role of school nurses in behavioral health support here.)
In 2018, a legislative report found that North Carolina leaders would need to invest approximately $75 million each year to ensure a school nurse in every building. Legislators and Governor Cooper have been able to put some temporary coronavirus relief funding towards increasing school nurses, social workers, and other key support personnel in our schools. However, these funds are only temporary. Our legislators should be looking for ways to ensure that students always have regular, ongoing access to school nurses and counseling resources.
Broadband Access Enables Connections
Life during a pandemic is stressful enough, but imagine it without reliable, high-speed internet. For those who have full broadband access, it’s easy to take it for granted. But in many rural parts of our state, and for many low-income families, high-speed internet is just a fantasy.
There are close to 200,000 homes with students in North Carolina that still have no internet access at home. This means that as schools go partially or completely online, many families are driving to school parking lots or fast-food restaurants to gain the wi-fi access they need for their kids to attend class. And without a high-speed connection, parents & caregivers can’t access telehealth services, apply for jobs or needed benefits like Medicaid or SNAP.
Legislators passed on the opportunity to remove some barriers to rural broadband during their session this spring. But it’s not too late – many advocates are calling on state leaders to pass the FIBER NC Act during their mini-session on COVID relief September 2 & 3.
Suicide Risks and Prevention
On June 9 of this year, I was honored to be part of a bill signing ceremony for Senate Bill 476 alongside Governor Cooper and other champions. This important legislation requires the State Board of Education to adopt a school-based mental health policy, and K-12 schools to adopt and implement a school-based mental health plan with training and a suicide risk referral protocol.
This legislation is critical, yet we still have much more to do to help young people in crisis. Kids need trained, caring adults in their lives who can help them. School nurses and other support personnel in particular can look out for children who have exposure to risk factors, and ensure they don’t have access to “lethal means of self-harm” (like ability to access something like a gun or harmful prescription drugs). Their interventions can save lives.
Helpful Tips and Resources to Support Kids Right Now
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline has shared coping tips and additional ways to support children and teens that are feeling emotional distress:
- Set a limit on media consumption, including social media, local or national news.
- Ensure young people stay active, get enough sleep, stay hydrated, and eat healthy foods when possible.
- Encourage children and teens to stay connected with loved ones and friends, giving them an outlet to talk about their feelings and enjoy conversation unrelated to the outbreak.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support. Or, you can text “CONNECT” to 741741.
These are hard times for our kids and our families. Which is why we are especially grateful for all the caring adults who are looking out for young people’s mental health. Thank you for helping us move forward with hope and optimism that our collective work on this issue will save kids’ lives.