Students’ mental health struggles spill over into Ohio schools

Post-pandemic, students are still reeling from the impact on their daily lives.

More than three years after the COVID-19 pandemic started, school-aged kids are still feeling the mental health impacts, which can spill over to the classroom.

“If students are experiencing anxiety or depression, they’re not able to concentrate on the lesson, so therefore they’re not getting their academic content,” said Jill Dudley, a licensed school counselor for Dayton Christian School.

Statewide, expulsions rose by 29% between the 2017-2018 school year and the 2021-2022 school year, reversing a downward trend. But suspensions, both in-school and out-of-school, fell by 11% — meaning that when kids got in trouble, they were in serious trouble.

The pandemic may have also stunted their communication skills, requiring more effort to teach kids how to relate to one another in person again.

“I think we’re still experiencing an increase in the rate of mental health concerns in children and adolescents,” said Dr. Kelly Blankenship, Dayton Children’s associate chief medical officer for behavioral health.

Suicide in 2021, the most recent year available, was the 12th leading cause of death overall in Ohio, and was the second leading cause of death among Ohioans ages 10 to 34. However, the number of deaths stayed below the 10-year high of 1,836 suicide deaths reported in 2018.

Nationally, early data on suicides from 2022 suggest an increase of 2.6% in total, though for people 10-24 years old it went down 8.4%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Blankenship described experiences she had with teenagers who survived suicide attempts and were admitted to Dayton Children’s behavioral unit.

“A couple of them have told me that they are crying because they’re still alive, that they expected to be dead after the suicide attempt,” Blankenship said. “That, to me, speaks to how dire the situation is for these kids.”

The pandemic was a crisis, Blankenship said, and even though the public health emergency is over and classroom settings are generally back to pre-pandemic styles, sometimes there is a delayed response after the crisis is over.

What is causing this distress?

Kids are dealing with academics, new school environments, economic challenges at home and conflict with loved ones, among other issues. A student might be homeless, have an abusive parent, be struggling with their English class because they don’t speak English well, or have a family member deployed overseas.

“I think you’re going to have different worries when you’re looking at elementary versus middle school versus high school, but I think you have a combination of academic and social issues that are in play for all of those ages,” said Dr. Anessa Alappatt, a family medicine physician with Premier Health’s Fairborn Medical Center.

Kids who struggle with food insecurity can qualify for free breakfast and lunch at school, but they may still lack clothes or school supplies.

Many schools have supply closets for students in those circumstances, including Dayton Public and Huber Heights.

Sheree Coffman, district student assistance coordinator for Northmont schools. said her team is notified whenever someone new comes into the schools. In this region, often a new student has a member of their family in the military. Coffman says she asks kids if their parents are deployed as that can be an additional stress.

Coffman said the transition years — in Northmont, seventh and ninth grade — can be difficult for students. Northmont opens school buildings a day early for those kids to allow them to familiarize themselves with the building without older kids.

The constant connection to cell phones and social media can be a curse.

“If you’re feeling down because of a conflict, and then you’re getting constant messages or texts that make you feel even worse over and over again. There’s no break from it,” Blankenship said.

Kids compare themselves to others on social media, which can offer an unrealistic portrayal of everyday life, Coffman said.

Kids dealing with stress, whether from conflicts with friends or other challenges, may have a difficult time concentrating in class.

Outside influences on the classroom

Some parents are concerned by attempts from politicians to limit what teachers can say and do, looking at states with laws on what teachers can discuss in the classroom and what books are permitted in schools.

Bradley Garwood, an Oakwood parent, said he is worried about changes seen in other states like Florida, such as book bans or banning topics relating to mental health. He argues that’s removing tools from a teacher’s toolbox.

This becomes an added stressor to teachers, as well as students who are already in a vulnerable position.

“You might have a kid who is part of the LGTBQ community who can’t talk about it with their teacher who’s supposed to be a trusted person that kind of guides them in a really critical and vulnerable time in their development,” Garwood said.

This may spur a generation of kids who are afraid to ask questions, he said.

“I can’t imagine how that wouldn’t affect your mental health,” Garwood said.

What can schools do?

Across the region, districts have hired school counselors and licensed therapists to help kids cope with the after-effects of the pandemic.

All school districts have guidance counselors available, and others have mental health therapists on staff. Some districts have added social workers to the payroll.

Districts including Kettering, Troy, Bellbrook, Springfield and Oakwood have mental health counselors available to students. Others, including Miamisburg, Northmont, Dayton, Trotwood, and Beavercreek have social workers and therapists available. Social workers can help students dealing with homelessness, for example, while therapists can teach coping skills and discuss mental well-being.

Many districts also contract with outside services to give kids who need licensed professional therapy additional help. Almost every district uses social and emotional learning, which focuses on identifying feelings and working on skills to foster healthy relationships throughout their lives.

Miamisburg superintendent Laura Blessing said the district chose to include safety and a sense of belonging as part of the district’s five-year strategic plan in 2021. That’s because if a student doesn’t feel safe on top of being well-fed and warm, it is difficult for that kid to learn.

That shift in education is called the “whole child” approach, which more districts have been implementing in recent years. But not all districts have mental health as a guiding principle of the school day.

“It’s not only about the reading, writing and arithmetic, it’s about how their emotional health is or physical health,” Blessing said.

The business and faith communities in Miamisburg have stepped up to help students, Blessing said, which can help them feel a sense of belonging in the community. Those partners have donated money and time, whether it’s gathering school supplies for an entire school or supporting social-emotional learning in after-school care.

Credit: Jim Witmer

Credit: Jim Witmer

Blessing, like Coffman, says she’s seen an improvement in the mental health of students. While she said there’s still work to be done, the most improvement she sees is among elementary school kids.

“What we’re seeing is a very optimistic view of kids’ resiliency,” Coffman said.

Many kids struggled with interacting with each other after the pandemic, Coffman said. That meant they got angry faster and maybe started a fight instead of talking it out, or started vaping as an unhealthy way to cope with stress.

When students do have consequences for their actions, Blessing and Coffman said it’s important to give students tools to react better in the future.

Northmont asks kids to model good behavior, such as high school athletes talking about bullying to younger kids, or the Hope Squad, which is a group of kids identified by their peers as good listeners.

“Kids will talk to kids before, stereotypically, they’ll talk to an adult,” Coffman said.

The voice of a peer carries a lot of weight, Coffman said, but there still needs to be adult supervision and not too much pressure on a student. It’s very clear to members of the Hope Squad that if a student tells another they are contemplating suicide, that’s an immediate report to an adult.

“When we’re talking about mental health problems, those are adults, they are trained,” she said.

What can parents do?

Imposing breaks from cellphones or screen time limits, depending on the child’s age, can be helpful, Blankenship said. She suggested having rules of not using the phone or texting when at the dinner table or during family time. Parents can also charge their kids’ cellphones in the parents’ room, so the kids aren’t interrupted through the night with messages.

Kids who feel anxious about going to school can get headaches and stomach aches, doctors say. But it is often associated with other disorders, like anxiety and depression, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

If the child is presenting physical symptoms, an evaluation by a physician may be needed to rule out any underlying medical problems.

Doctors also recommend addressing school refusal with a collaborative approach that includes the family physician, school staff, parents, and a mental health professional, the American Academy of Family Physicians said.

Parents should also try to actively engage their children in conversation, asking open-ended questions. This can help parents connect with their kids, but also see if their kids are experiencing distress or symptoms of anxiety or depression.

“The more we can get parents connecting with their kids, the sooner that kids will really start talking to their parents about what’s going on, and if there is something bad going on, or if they’re feeling bad,” Blakenship said. “The parents can help the kids work through this, but if the parents don’t know what’s going on, they can’t help the kids.”

Conversation starters

Five Rivers MetroParks has guided nature walks available with questions for parents to ask their children at four locations in the Montgomery County parks, including at Eastwood, Huffman, Possum Creek and Sunrise MetroParks.

“More than ever, people need a place to re-center and find calm and balance,” said Bernadette Whitworth, program coordinator at Five Rivers MetroParks. “Nature can be calming, help people de-stress and can have a positive impact on mental health.”

For conversation starters or other resources, parents can visit