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A new school year brings fresh concerns about the mental health of students

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In many parts of the country, kids are about to wrap up their first week of school. And teachers are happy to have them back for what they hope is a relatively COVID-free school year. But there's one more thing educators and health care providers are preparing for - another wave of kids struggling with their mental health. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: To understand why educators and health care providers are concerned about kids' mental health, we have to step back to this time last year, when students came back into classrooms, many for the first time since spring of 2020, and educators were thrilled.

BOB MULLANEY: We were very excited because we were going to have all our kids back.

CHATTERJEE: Bob Mullaney is superintendent of Mills Public Schools in Massachusetts. But he says the last school year turned out to be a tough one.

MULLANEY: We had a lot of kids with elevated levels of anxiety and stress, kids who are fearful coming to school, fearful of contracting COVID. We had an increase in students reporting suicidal ideation. It was a lot.

CHATTERJEE: Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in the previous academic year, 76% of public schools reported concerns around student mental health, and only half said they felt equipped to address the problem. And data from emergency rooms show a rise in the number of kids seeking help for mental health crises. Even after schools closed for the summer, hospitals have continued to see children and adolescents seeking care for mental health. So health care providers and educators are expecting that kids are still struggling, especially in the country's most marginalized communities, where families are still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic.

ELISA VILLANUEVA BEARD: Things like loss of life, loss of jobs, food insecurity, homes - you know, kids not having, you know, predictable homes, the predictability and routine completely disrupted.

CHATTERJEE: Elisa Villanueva Beard is CEO of Teach for America, which caters to schools in underserved communities. She says her organization is sensitizing teachers to the emotional states of their students.

VILLANUEVA BEARD: We have to actually equip our teachers to be able to approach classrooms in a trauma-informed way. And they all want this. So we, as part of our training curriculum, are really teaching our teachers how to be emotionally available.

CHATTERJEE: That's the right approach, says psychologist Janice Beal, who works with schools in the Houston area.

JANICE BEAL: Every morning, five minutes - check in with the students and have everybody share how they're feeling for that particular day.

CHATTERJEE: Beal says it's something she's been telling teachers as they prepare for the school year.

BEAL: So the teachers - we don't want them to be mental health professionals. We want you to be able to understand what mental health concerns may be in your classroom and to be able to recognize them so that you can refer them.

CHATTERJEE: Beal has also created a team of mental health ambassadors, students who have been trained as peer counselors.

BEAL: The ambassadors' role will be able to, if someone was, you know, having some type of difficulty, to come and talk to them.

CHATTERJEE: So kids feel more comfortable sharing their mental health struggles and seeking help before they reach a crisis point. Dr. Tami Benton is psychiatrist-in-chief at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She says she's heartened by how proactive schools have been regarding student mental health going into the school year.

TAMI BENTON: This year, what we can expect is a more open approach by schools and communities to understanding these mental health challenges and actually having much more education about how to respond.

CHATTERJEE: And that gives her hope that this school year might make it a little easier for students to get help. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can dial or text the new suicide and crisis lifeline at 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.