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Southern Arizona students may be at breaking point with return to classroom

Mental Health crisis heightens in schools
Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 1:58 PM MST|Updated: Sep. 9, 2021 at 2:11 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Kids have returned to campuses, but schools are now dealing with more mental stress among students. Experts say it’s at a crisis point.

Educators expected this, for the most part, but it was hard to tell how bad it could be with students

The pandemic has cost students a lot, not only academically, but emotionally.

Many students missed required classes during remote learning. They saw their grades drop and their stress rise. Some experienced a lot of trauma pushing more students to a breaking point.

School counselors are needed now more than ever, but there’s been a shortage for years and it’s gotten even worse.

Sunnyside’s superintendent braced for more students in distress.

“So we knew as we were returning back to school that we’re going to have a lot of students who were suffering from a lot of emotional stress during the pandemic.” Steve Holmes said.

Danielle Khambholja, a school counselor, is on the front lines on the mental health crisis. She says what she’s seen so far is alarming.

Two of the most common issues right now are “grief and loss” and “anxiety”.

“Before the pandemic we would see everything, but at a much lower percentage,” Khambholja said.

About 5% of students would see counselors for trauma and anxiety.

“We see a huge increase,” said Khambholja, “It was my first year that I had students who weren’t able to cope.”

Many of these students are dealing with anxiety, Holmes said, and are still worried about how the pandemic could still affect themselves and their families.

Additionally, Khambolja says, she’s seeing more students struggling with the loss of a loved one during the pandemic.

And some families are still going through financial hardships caused by the pandemic.

“We’ve seen an increase in students who are reporting homelessness,” said Khambholja.

Not a surprise in a district with at least 80% of the student population on free or reduced lunch.

Christopher Flores is a senior at Desert View High School.

He says some of his friends have had to babysit or take up jobs to support their families. Now they can’t, since returning to campus.

And that’s creating more anxiety.

“They’re not the babysitter anymore,” said Flores, “They can’t support their parents anymore. And for them, it puts a financial stress on their mind or it puts that worry about their siblings and their parents. Because for a lot of my friends and myself, we saw how fragile the system really was.”

Pima County superintendent Dustin Williams describes what’s being reported by other districts. “We’re seeing a lot of cases of depression, We’re working with the Pima County health department on their socio-emotional strategies, basically kids just feeling depressed, feeling alone.”

Others are working through the stress of returning to campuses full of people, but having trouble verbalizing their anxieties.

“They’re not exactly sure what’s triggering it. And sometimes that’s really behind us trying to investigate and figure it out,” Khambholja said.

So case loads stack up.

She cites another overwhelming issue: the mental health situations are more severe.

And not only in Sunnyside. Tucson Medical Center says there’s a higher number of 12 to 17-year-olds in the hospital for behavioral issues, anxiety, depression and suspected suicide attempts.

Khambholja said it’s hard to keep up with the demand.

“It’s difficult just because we’re spread thin,” she said.

The counselor shortage nationwide has been around for awhile, but the pandemic exacerbated it.

“It would be great to have another counselor because our case loads are so big,” she said.

Sunnyside managed to boost the counselor count before students returned to campus.

The district mirrors most in Pima County, each reporting at least 1 counselor in the lower grades and more in high schools.

Amphi, Nogales and Tucson Unified districts have vacancies.

TUSD reports the greatest need at 15.

“A lot of people have left, retired, we need them to come back,” said Williams.

So now districts are having to rely on more help from outside services, but access to care has also reached a crisis point.

Even before the pandemic, it could take 3 months, Holmes says, to get a first appointment. Getting all the paperwork filled out and really get the referral done can be a nightmare.

It is so hard. It’s really is a complicated system to really receive services out there,” he said.

Holmes is using COVID relief dollars to bolster internal support by not only hiring more counselors, but also subcontracting with a few mental health agencies.

“We just refer them to onsite people that we procured through our COVID dollars to make sure that becomes part of our service design versus trying to send them off to an external agency,” he said.

Though the pandemic caught everyone by surprise and challenged nearly every aspect of people’s lives, it gave rise to the term “resilience”.

Flores said, “I think a lot of a huge chunk of the student population is fragile, including myself. But while we’ve see that, the pandemic really made it so that we would work together more often. So I think if things turn sour, there’s going to be a better chance of us bouncing back.”

Arizona has earmarked $21 million to add 140 counselors and social workers. Some districts are boosting pay to entice these professionals into these jobs.

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