Back to School: How are local school districts prioritizing mental health?

Children’s mental health has decreased over time, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. As students head back to the classrooms, FOX 9 wanted to know how local school districts are prioritizing mental health this year.

The past two years have certainly brought challenges for students, but Dr. Joe Gothard, superintendent of Saint Paul Public Schools said he's seeing an enthusiasm he hasn't seen in a long time.

"The smiles that I'm seeing right now seem to be a little bit more real than they've been the last couple of years. There's been trepidation, worry, wondering, questions," he said.

To help alleviate those worries, federal COVID-19 relief funds have allowed his district to add mental health resources toward the schools that need it the most. That includes hiring additional counselors, training staff and investing in calming spaces.

Gothard said he knows some students are still recovering from time spent distanced learning.

"Our kids are social. Our staff certainly are. And being together and building a community – It's really hard to do online," he said.

A spokesperson for one of Minnesota's largest school districts, Anoka-Hennepin, said federal funding has allowed the district to hire on extra social workers, counselors and academic support teachers through the end of this school year. The district is also trying some new things this year, including having child psychiatrists lead training for staff, and offering a new employee wellness podcast.

Minneapolis Public Schools recently invested 2.5 million dollars in mental health. A spokesperson told FOX 9 its students are facing challenges not only resulting from the pandemic but also an increase in crime, and the murder of George Floyd.

Psychologists are still uncovering the lasting effects of the last two years. 

"It led to teachers being kind of frustrated, and I think that frustration was easy for kids to pick up on and teenagers to pick up on," said Dr. David Nathan, a psychologist with Allina Health.

Dr. Nathan specializes in child and adolescent psychology. He said setting routines and starting this school year with a positive attitude are key. He also recommends that parents find an activity their child likes and is good at, and that will make them happier in school.

"Recognizing that there are a lot of things that are going to be better this year. We're going to be with our friends. We're going to be with our teachers," Nathan said.

Ultimately, he said parents should seek professional help if their children are really struggling, but it's also important to check in and ask how they're doing.

"We shouldn't expect our kids to just feel to flip a switch and just feel completely comfortable going back to school like nothing happened. Big stuff happened," he explained.