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It's Mental Health Awareness Month. How Can Schools Increase Social Emotional Supports?

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COVID-19 has reignited the conversation around student mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and, crucially, the end of the pandemic-altered school year.

A plan pushing through the Illinois legislature would allow students up to five “mental health day” absences a year. Social workers like Silvia Hudzik spent the last year helping students unpack pandemic trauma. She works with dozens of Rockford Public Schools students both online and in-person.

Even if she had every tool possible, she says that still wouldn’t have prepared her for this year. Hudzik says a substantial part of her schedule has been connecting families to community services like health care, disabilities and housing.

“I think the biggest, especially for our families, is accessing services. I mean, there's a lot of programs out there that are kind of like the best-kept secret,” said Hudzik.

She says helping kids access that network of support should be even more of a focus and much less of a secret post-pandemic.

When all students return in-person, she says schools should use social-emotional learning standards to ask them questions, so staff can better understand their needs. Hudzik is on a curriculum leadership team hoping to do that this fall.  

She says having a social-emotional learning curriculum -- as they do -- is helpful to frame conversations, but it has its limitations in practice.

“Do you know how many times I have been completely off-script this year?” she said. “Where it's like, ‘Okay, I wanted to do lesson number 14 in the Second Step curriculum. But Johnny came in saying, you know what? I hate my life. I hate this. Well, let's talk about it.’ Again, they want that genuine [connection].”

Students across the country have reported increased anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Assisting students who were seeking help from their homes and even community centers put her work in perspective for her.

She says schools need to hire more social workers and support staff. They also need to make it easier to connect families to those outside services.

It’ll also be essential, she says, to just give them the space to talk about their experience during COVID.