At the height of the pandemic, it was obvious to mental health professionals who specialize in working with Escambia County children that social strains from COVID-19 were taking a toll on their patients.

But local licensed professional counselors and clinical social workers didn’t come to understand the full weight of the situation until the kids returned to school last fall.

Distance learning was mainly discontinued at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, and when Escambia County’s children returned to brick-and-mortar classrooms, many of them had extremely hard times coping.

By Christmas break, the Escambia County School District had referred more elementary school students to Lakeview Center counselors than it had for all of the 2020-2021 school year.

The school district contracts with the Lakeview Center to provide mental health services to elementary school students and contracts with the Children’s Home Society of Florida to provide mental health services to middle schoolers.

The CHSF experienced an approximately 30% increase in the number of middle school referrals it received this academic year from the Escambia County School District.

A bulletin board at Warrington Middle School in Pensacola on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.  The faculty is hoping that the school receives at least a C grade in order to continue on its current path of improvement.

Furthermore, programs at the Lakeview Center referred to as TRACE and WRAP, aimed at helping children and adolescents cope with issues such as substance abuse, mental illness and regulating their behaviors, experienced between a 30% and 40% increase in the number of kids in need of their services.

“Some of the kids I’m thinking about would start banging their head even to the point of bleeding,” said Patti Hyde, during an interview.

Hyde is a licensed clinical social worker who administers Lakeview Center’s TRACE and WRAP program. Many of her patients have already undergone hospitalization by the time they enter into either inpatient program.

“We have definitely seen an increase in anxiety and depression, and the other thing that we’re noticing, at our level of care, is an increase in what is like a trauma response,” Hyde said. “I’m not sure if we would delegate that a PTSD diagnosis at this point, so much as they’re just responding to the anxiety that their parents are experiencing.”

Despite public sentiment that the pandemic is behind us, Escambia County therapists and clinical social workers say its lasting effects on children are not, and parents should be aware of what they can do to help their kids.

Making sense of the problem

Approximately 500 public elementary school students had been referred for mental health counseling between the start of this past school year and Christmas, according to James Rhodes, director of school-based services for the Lakeview Center.

Rhodes said the number may have reached 1,000 if it weren’t for staffing shortages hindering the number of students that counselors could see.

“I think initially everybody was excited to come back, but that wore off very quickly,” Rhodes said.

The high volume of referrals started as soon as school was back in session.

“That year,” he said, referring to 2020-2021 school year, “we did our best to tele-help kids, but there was a large unmet need. Like, maybe parents didn’t take advantage of (the services) or if you have a kid who is struggling socially, that may just not show up as much with the at-home learning.”

For teachers and counselors alike, there was no curriculum or educational or therapeutic model that could instantly be put in place to help children cope with the type of trauma experienced in the wake of a pandemic.

“I think what it ended up looking like was a lot of lack of engagement, social problems and kids that were kind of used to autonomy at that point, facilitating their own day for a lot of the day, and now coming back to structure and rules and some of the things,” Rhodes said.

He added when some students realized they had fallen behind their grade level, worries about remedial studies only added to the problem.

The Children’s Home Society of Florida‘s Pensacola office received 1,007 counseling referrals for public middle school students this year, compared to the 779 it received the previous year, according to Diana Born, a licensed counselor and clinical supervisor with the CHSF.

Not only did the number of referrals that CHSF received last year go up, but Born added she and the counselors she supervises noticed the typical symptoms of patients changed. In previous years, the CHSF received the majority of its referrals for behavioral issues such as acting out.

“Now, it’s clinical anxiety and depression that we’re seeing,” Born said.

One of Born’s theories about the root of the shifting symptoms centers on social isolation.

File Illustration Image - Mental Health

“Now that they’re back in school, we also have kids with a lot of social anxiety, which just means that they’re worried that people are judging them. And that’s kind of what they focus on — how people are viewing them,” said Born. “It seems to be coming from the fact that they were isolated and away from peers for a year at least, and in some cases, a year and a half,” she added. “And now that they’re back in this school setting full-time, they’re having more issues with that.”

At a high school level, Hyde said, counselors have witnessed an increase in teenage patients’ abuses of substances such as marijuana, alcohol and Xanax this past school year. Hyde also said counselors have heard from increasing numbers of high schoolers about risky sexual behaviors, often facilitated through online apps.

“You know, honestly, the biggest risk that literally scared us, as mental health providers, is human trafficking,” Hyde said. “That’s the scariest thing and that just keeps going up and up, and we just see more and more people who have that risky interaction on the internet that’s unsupervised.”

What parents can do

More now and then ever before, Born said parents should be on the lookout for sudden and drastic changes in their children’s moods.

“We hear a lot of parents say, ‘This isn’t my child. This isn’t what my child was like before,'” Born said, adding phrases like that can be helpful in recognizing there might be a problem.

“So they noticed their child goes from being really happy to now they seem sad all the time. They may isolate from their family members and withdraw, and they may spend lots of time in their room,” Born said.

Parents paying attention to kids’ energy levels can also be a way to determine if there is a mental health problem at work.

“Where they used to be really active, now, they may not be as active as they were before,” Born said, as an example. “They may seem tired a lot, and they may sleep a lot. They also tend to lack motivation.”

Anxiety, in many instances, can lead to depression, which could potentially lead to self harm.

Hyde said anyone concerned about their young or teenage child can reach her directly by calling 850-418-1281.

The Lakeview Center’s Mobile Response Unit can be reached at 866-517-7766, and the Children’s Home Society of Florida can be reached by calling 850-266-2700.

Originally posted by:

By Colin Warren-Hicks