With school and other closures affecting school-aged kids nationwide, it’s impossible not to think about the mental health effects this pandemic may be having on children and teenagers.
I sat down with Kate Thomas, a school-based mental health consultant at Franklin High School Health Clinic in Portland, Oregon, to learn more about what we can do to help kids through these difficult times. She holds an an MS in psychobiology and has worked in mental health for the past 20 years. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. How do school-based mental health consultants serve students at Franklin High School?
We provide outpatient counseling services in the school setting, either in the school-based health clinic or in a room the school provides for us. We provide individual, family, and group counseling services as well as case management and coordination of care.
Can you tell me about your student population?
There’s a wide range of students served. I don’t have the specific demographics, but they are typically lower income and qualify for free and reduced lunch. Most are uninsured or covered through the Oregon Health Plan, which insures low-income Oregonians. There are times when a student has private insurance but cannot obtain mental health counseling for a variety of reasons or barriers, and we’ll see them, too.
What did a typical workday look like for you before school closures? And what are your days like now?
Before our stay home and work from home order, I worked in the clinic in person and met with students four days a week. I also met with parents and coordinated with teachers, school counselors, and doctors. Now I have my computer set up on my sewing table and I am reaching out to students, their families, and counselors by phone or video chat.
The stressors related to the COVID-19 crisis are real. […] [F]rustrations may be really hard to navigate. I want families to know they are not alone.”
One big thing I need to think about more now is confidentiality. I can’t be having conversations with students or families where others in my household can hear. I have to respect that some students may not have the privacy they would like to be comfortable sharing information with me.
I know I’m not alone in being concerned about kids being asked to stay home who may be encountering distressing situations, like parents suddenly finding themselves without work or even domestic violence. What are some of your current concerns for your students?
The stressors related to the COVID-19 crisis are real, so there is a chance that family violence may escalate. It puts a strain on people, especially parents, and frustrations may be really hard to navigate. I want families to know they are not alone. I try to make sure students and parents alike know they can ask for support, and I try to plant seeds that it’s okay to talk about what’s hard (when it’s safe to talk privately).
Social distancing is hard and can lead to feelings of isolation. [I]t is so important to maintain contact, even if it isn’t physical, with those around us. […] Let people know that you see them and they matter.”
I am working to address this as an opportunity to grow. I believe that we really are doing the best we can at each given moment. This is a time when we can all agree that this sucks and that there are also often things we can find to be grateful for. Yes, stresses are greater; I am especially concerned for families who were just making it from paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic hit. I have some parents working multiple jobs, swing shift and then a graveyard shift six to seven days a week. But I am constantly astounded by each family’s strengths and their dedication to making things work out.
Do you have any tips for students and families during these difficult times?
Yes! Some general guidelines I try to follow and share with others are these:
- Find ways to support remaining calm
- Respond with an educated response, not from fear
- Maintain a routine
- Practice gratitude for yourself and for others
- Connect with your emotions and accept your feelings
- Check in with your children about how they are feeling
- Identify healthy activities to be part of, like doing exercise, watching your favorite comedies, or playing games
- Reach out to others for yourself or to support others
Are there any resources you recommend?
I have been finding new resources and rediscovering old ones. Here are just a few of them:
- Russ Harris’ video about using the principles from acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) to focus and support oneself is great. The content is also available in a free eBook.
- The Story of the Oyster and the Butterfly: The coronavirus and me by Ana Gomez, although written for younger kids, is good for anyone because it encourages us to look at how adversity can build strength and resilience.
- The computer game SuperBetter builds on some basic things that support physical, emotional, mental, and social resilience.
- Meditation/mindfulness/breath awareness can be a great practice to reduce stress levels. Headspace is a phone app that I have had some students enjoy and they have some free content right now.
- We still have many of the social services agencies doing the work that they have always done, just in a slightly different way. Here are a few that might be helpful.
ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline
Crisis Text Line
Lines for Life Alcohol and Drug Helpline
National Domestic Violence Hotline
National Runaway Safeline
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Project Unica (domestic violence support in Spanish)
Teen Health and Wellness hotlines
The Trevor Project (LGBTQ+ mental health support)
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
There isn’t really a substitute for social connections and support through our neighbors. That is one reason I am really focused on seeing this as an opportunity for neighbors and friends to support each other.
I have been hearing of examples from the families I work with, as well as in my neighborhood. I have one family that set up a projector in their yard so others can watch a movie, from a safe distance. Another family was out delivering homemade face masks to people over a recent weekend. I learned of a teenager going to the store for their grandparents and families playing games together.
[W]hat a great opportunity and time for us to look at our own resilience and our connections within society.”
Social distancing is hard and can lead to feelings of isolation. I am especially concerned for folks who have already been experiencing oppression or marginalization. That is why I think it is so important to maintain contact, even if it isn’t physical, with those around us. When you walk down the street, wave across the street to someone, even if they are a complete stranger. Say thank you to the person who makes a delivery to your house or checks you out at the grocery store. Let people know that you see them and they matter.
Traditional education is important, yet what a great opportunity and time for us to look at our own resilience and our connections within society. Just because we cannot be physically close with those around us doesn’t mean we have to be isolated. What a great time to challenge ourselves and our youth to think outside the box, be creative, appreciate what we do have, and practice gratitude.