Pandemic School Year Anxieties: In Chelsea, Counselors Navigate Rise In Mental Health Needs

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After more than a year of remote learning, Chelsea Public Schools reopened its buildings to all students full-time last month. The move was a big transition for everyone, and many, including staff, said they remember feeling nervous.

"It definitely felt like a first day of school," recalled Kim Huffer, the district's administrator of social work and social and emotional learning. "There's that anxiety of 'how are things going to go? Are people going to wear their masks?' "

But, she said, the anxiety for many of the adults quickly dissipated as soon as students walked in the doors.

"As soon as the students walked back in the building — not that you could see smiles behind masks — but faces lit up," said Huffer. "And students were like, 'Miss! It's nice to see you!' "

Sixth graders at the Clark Avenue Middle School head to lunch. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Sixth graders at the Clark Avenue Middle School head to lunch. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But while the first days were filled with excitement, Huffer said she could tell students were also working hard to navigate some of the new social norms tied to being back in school even as fears of the pandemic still loomed large in the community. Should they hug their friends or just bump elbows? Is it OK to ask if their friends got the vaccine?

Huffer and her staff said students talked to social workers and counselors a lot about social anxiety, especially when it comes to body image. Some kids gained or lost weight. Others hadn't gotten a hair cut in more than a year, and quite a few students had gone through puberty during the roughly 400 days since they last saw their peers and teachers at school.

"We've done a lot of work with teachers to be like, 'Let's welcome kids back, but know that kids may be a little self-conscious about what they look like,' " explained Huffer.

On top of helping kids manage those worries, Huffer said her staff has been on high alert for signs of trauma, anxiety or clinical depression.

Chelsea was hit hard by the pandemic. Many of the students have lost family members, or experienced food insecurity after a parent lost a job. The threshold that teachers usually have for referring students to a social worker or counselor is lower now. It's not uncommon for a teacher to see a child looking more tired than usual and direct that student to the school's mental health staff for check in — just in case.

'Helps Me Express My Emotions Inside'

The flow of students into the student support office is constant. During the school day, there's pretty much always at least one student meeting with one of the district's 15 social workers and 11 school counselors.

Caitlin Nickell, a social worker at Clark Avenue School, often sees students grappling with a range of emotions. Sometimes, she and the middle-schoolers will play games or do activities to explore how they are feeling that day.

While in past year's Nickell would mostly meet students in her office, this year she's spending more time than ever talking with kids in different settings due to the pandemic.

"This year we've been doing a lot outside," explained Nickell. "It's been nice to take our masks off and get a break, and to help regulate our breathing and our bodies."

School social worker Caitlin Nickell meets with a student in her office at the Clark Avenue Middle School in Chelsea. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
School social worker Caitlin Nickell meets with a student in her office at the Clark Avenue Middle School in Chelsea. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By the final few school weeks, Nickell and the other social workers on Huffer's staff were starting to get a better idea of how big the mental health needs really were — at least among students who returned to classrooms. About 50% of the student body opted to continue remote learning this year, which has made those kids harder to reach.

The district administered a voluntary anxiety and depression symptom survey, and it saw fewer reports from students who remained remote. Still, the survey revealed that clinical mental health needs among students had risen significantly since the pandemic: 13% of eighth graders and 9% of ninth graders scored within the threshold of clinical concern. In previous years, those rates hovered around 2%.

Coordinator of Social Work Services at Chelsea Public Schools Kim Huffer walks up a stairway of the Clark Avenue Middle School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Kim Huffer, Chelsea Public Schools' coordinator of social work services, walks up a stairway inside the Clark Avenue Middle School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"We're just seeing a little more hopelessness," explained Huffer. "I've just been thinking about what students have been carrying with them that maybe we didn't know about."

Summer Coping Strategies

With summer break approaching, Huffer's focus now will turn to getting kids connected with clinical providers if they need them. Most therapists have long wait lists though, and so Huffer's team has been working hard to also provide students with coping strategies to help them through delays. Meditation apps have been a popular resource for students with smartphones.

The district's mental health staff will continue to provide some services to students into the summer months. Huffer added she'll also use that time to take stock of how this school year ended and begin making a game plan for next year.

"My hope is that next year there will be an opportunity to pause to acknowledge the impact that COVID has had on us," she said. "And to acknowledge what we've learned from it."

This project is funded in part by a grant from the NIHCM Foundation. Illustrations and animations in this series were created by Sophie Morse.

This segment aired on June 21, 2021.


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Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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