K-12 students experience heightened anxiety and combat other mental health-related issues as they return to in-person learning

Fighting, fidgeting, or a lack of focus. Sudden withdrawal or violent outbursts. 

Students can express their anxiety in many ways, it all depends on the individual and their experiences, said Lompoc Unified School District Social-Emotional Learning Counselor Emily Stone. 

“A lot of students are coming in for panic attacks. Often they say, ‘I zone out all of the time, and I can’t figure out why,’ or ‘I have anxiety or depression, and I can’t figure out why,’” Stone said. 

click to enlarge K-12 students experience heightened anxiety and combat other mental health-related issues as they return to in-person learning
COMFORTABLE : Social-Emotional Learning Counselor Emily Stone fills her office with positive affirmations, bean bag chairs, and tips and strategies to help students understand that it’s a safe space to talk about mental health.

Stone’s job as a social-emotional learning counselor at Lompoc Middle School is to help students identify their mental health needs and find healthy ways to manage their stress, anger, or anxiety levels, she said. 

“I started in September, and I don’t have pre-pandemic experience, but I’ve been told this has been one of the most intense years, and it’s probably because of the pandemic. We definitely have a lot of anxiety, stress, and students who seem to be in crisis,” Stone said. 

Stone is one of many new social-emotional learning (SEL) counselors the district added to each of its school sites to help with mental health needs as students returned to in-person learning after two years of shuffling between online and hybrid models. 

“That’s a really long time, and it’s a hard shift going from one to the other,” Stone said. “With all of this, [students] lost the tools and access for when they’re feeling anxious; and then I think there’s a lot of students who are relying on social media for how they should present themselves, and that can also be very damaging.”

To help give students more tools to deal with some of these issues, Lompoc Unified School District counselors created group intervention programs called SEL academies where students select a specific mental health issue to work on with fellow classmates for six weeks, Stone explained. 

“We had 195 students ask for additional support for stress and anxiety, 23 students want to improve their communication, 14 for divorce and family separation, 40 for a [self esteem] girls group, 45 are interested in anger management, and 80 wanted LGBTQIA support,” Stone said. 

Students are excused from class each week to learn about different coping strategies. If it’s trauma, Stone recommends journaling. With body issues, she recommends positive self-talk, and if it’s negative thoughts, she’ll recommend positive affirmations. Stone said she encourages students to try different techniques for a week, and if those don’t work, they work together to fine tune a better solution. 

“If a piece didn’t work, it’s important to talk about that, too, so we can go back and add more tools to the tool belt,” she said. 

In order for schools to gain more tools of their own, the Newsom administration allocated $400 million of the state’s $90 billion 2021-22 education budget to school-based mental health services—the highest funding levels in state history, according to a press release from the governor’s office. At the federal level, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued an advisory report to protect youth mental health and identified it as a public health issue. 

“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another one to grow in its place,” the report stated. “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread. But most importantly, they are treatable and often preventable.”

Jill Sharkey, a clinical and school psychology professor at UC Santa Barbara, collaborated with Partners and Prevention in September 2021—an alcohol and drugs awareness group funded by the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness—to conduct a youth needs assessment that highlighted changes in youth substance use and other issues that began during the pandemic, she said.

“What we are learning is there are issues of isolation and multiple layers of adverse things. COVID had been an additional layer, disproportionately affecting those already facing adverse issues,” Sharkey said. 

In assessment focus groups, students said they felt isolated from their social lives during quarantine, and now feel anxious when it comes to socialization—causing some to turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. To combat this, students said that they wanted to have more open conversations with parents and more group opportunities to talk about mental health, she explained. 

“We need to look at how we give the youth trauma-informed care while they are engaged in natural social activities they crave so they don’t have to do something extra,” Sharkey said. “There’s been a lot of funded programs through the county and even more in development. I’m hopeful we are turning to prevention and intervention rather than to crisis management.” 

A way to avoid crisis management is through a tiered structure of outreach and counseling, Sharkey said. Lompoc Unified began implementing the tiered structure on its school campuses as part of an every day routine, Lompoc High School SEL Counselor Carla Montes said. 

“We look at it like a pyramid. The bottom is outreach, going to every student, like saying hello [to them] in the hallways. Tier two is for group counseling or office mediation,” Montes said. “Tier one is the highest risk where they are referred to a therapist or school counselor; it’s a lot of one-on-one support. A small percentage of the school needs that tier one support.” 

At the high school level, counselors focus on college and career readiness as well as mental health counseling, but Montes said that students needed a separate SEL counselor and group sessions. 

“The only thing that’s really alarming to me is I feel like the anxiety levels are in a [state] I’ve never seen before. It’s how many kids are having anxiety and panic attacks, and how many are admitting they’re depressed. Compared to the previous years, it’s coming up every single day, and I have a huge waitlist for anxiety group counseling,” she said. 

In the SEL academies, students are taught to understand the root of their anxiety and their triggers. Then, they are taught self-management tools like breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or grounding—where students use their senses to regulate stress levels—Montes explained. SEL academies showed high success rates after analyzing disciplinary data, as well as looking at student questionnaires both before and after group enrollment, she said. 

“We are realizing that a lot of the tiered intervention support we have keeps those disciplines low, [but] to be very honest, there’s still a lot of students not OK with it; [they] don’t believe in therapy,” Montes said. “I tell them there’s high hopes that they’ll improve. I’m not making them sign in blood, they are welcome to leave at any time they want. I try to remove the pressure from them and practice the autonomy to do it for themselves.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].

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