One of the less visible impacts to the general public in California of the continuing health pandemic has been its impact on the mental health of school age children — unless you are a parent or a child.

They have known or battled the impacts for the past couple of years brought about by closed schools campuses, Zoom or other video instruction, angst or depression brought on by continued isolation in residences or an inability to keep up with classwork because of little or no access to Wi-Fi or wireless internet.

Both the state and federal legislatures have poured money into programs to combat the problems that can create mental health issues for students, most notably via the American Rescue Plan. According to Sen. Alex Padilla’s office, Congress to date has provided more than $15 billion to California through the American Rescue Plan in education grant federal funding to help the state’s school districts respond to the educational challenges caused by the pandemic.

But even as recently as last December, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared a national “youth mental health crisis” due to the pandemic that has significantly impacted student’s educational performance.

“As a society, we’ve been fighting for many years to end the stigma and shame around mental health, but our young people are suffering,” said Padilla (D-CA), who hosted a seminar on Friday, May 20, with Dr, Miguel Cardona, the US Secretary of Education, and other state and southland students and educators.

“This is the case since long before the COVID 19 pandemic. But certainly the pandemic has put a spotlight on the needs, the demand for services and the importance of this conversation,” Padilla said. “So the mission today is clearly more important than ever because it is absolutely clear that our young people are suffering.”

More detailed and disturbing examples of the depths of problems occurring statewide were offered by Rana Banankhah, who attends Modesto High School and is the student member on the State Board of Education, and Nichi Avina, a 2022 California Teacher of the Year.

Banankhah noted that “essentially, a lot of what makes school fun and brings us happiness” — i.e. proms, athletic events, hanging out with friends — “didn’t really exist last year. It was all displaced by Zoom meetings, and more Zoom meetings, and even more Zoom meetings — all in the complete isolation of our bedrooms.

“Unfortunately, though, the social isolation of online learning didn’t just affect our mental health just last year. The impact of it continues to be felt to this very day. I’ve been able to talk to hundreds of students about the issues that they care about most. And overwhelmingly, the single biggest issue that I’ve heard students bring up is always mental health.”

Avina, who teaches science at Cielo Vista Charter middle school in Palm Springs, was even more bleak.

“We do have a national emergency on our hands,” she said. “I just wanted to give you a snippet of how this looks like in the schools. After 18 months of lockdown, I noticed behaviors I’ve never seen before. I think a lot of social isolation sometimes without parent’s supervision has driven us to find a community and connection through social media.

“We came back to in-person learning and there was an uptick in fights through posting these fights on social media and getting likes so that they will fight even more. And I dare say that social media is the new way to radicalize disenfranchised youth.”

She added there has been “an unprecedented rate” of destructive vandalism at her school.

“At one point the boys’ middle school bathroom was completely defaced. A paper towel dispenser was ripped from the wall. Toilet paper was thrown all over the floor. Everything was covered in urine.”

And students and families aren’t the only ones impacted, Avina said. “A record number of teachers are burning out and leaving the profession. Every school counselor and psychologist that I know all share that they have done more mental health referrals, threats and risk assessments this year than their entire career.”

In his remarks, Cardona noted that California has been using its “rescue dollars” from the American Rescue Plan in education grant federal funding to support expanded learning opportunity programs.

“This is critical. Expanded learning opportunities [can] make up for some of that lost time that our students have,” he said. “This program will provide students, especially those most impacted by the pandemic, with additional instructional time, with quality tutoring and with mental health support. American Rescue Plan dollars are supporting 21st Century Community Learning Centers that expand access to after school programs for students in low-income communities.”

Dr. Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County superintendent of schools,  did offer some small but uplifting results from the funding.

“We saw $1.7 billion for implementation grants,” Duardo said. “That’s nine schools, and $92 million for implementation grants in 63 sites in LA County. This is huge. It means children and families will have access to the types of supports they need in order to do well in school and to be able to thrive.

“This is wonderful because it allows us to provide a safe environment where children feel they have the resources that they need when they’re struggling with an emotional problem or a mental health issue.” 

But while everyone was in agreement about the harmful impacts of the pandemic, no one yet knows how long those impacts will last.

“We have experienced collective trauma due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Duardo said. “Children and families faced job instability, food and housing insecurity and devastating loss. These challenges have placed a strain on our students’ mental well-being, creating barriers to learning and overall academic success.

“We must prioritize mental and emotional healing in our schools to create stronger futures for our students and communities.” 

The Los Angeles Unified School District lists various mental health and other health service referrals on its website. It includes the California Youth Crisis Line in English and Spanish at (800) 843-5200 (call or text), the Crisis Text Line (text LA to 741741) and Didi Mental Health Services (see the website for appropriate numbers).