Returning to school as pandemic lingers, San Antonio students inundate counseling center

For years, kids in Veronica Salgado’s “transition camps” have enrolled because they are anxious about making the challenging leap from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school.

But this summer, after students experienced more than a year of isolation, struggled to keep up with online learning and had little contact with friends, Salgado, youth development manager for Family Service Association, and her team are tackling bigger problems than just helping kids figure out how to find their lockers or make new friends.

Anxiety levels are skyrocketing as kids worry about their ability to keep up with schoolwork, focus in a room full of peers and navigate social situations with peers they have not seen face to face in more than a year. The need is so great that some of the kids in the camp are not transitioning to new schools.

“It’s all hands on deck, for sure,” Salgado said of the camps, hosted in coordination with school districts, and now connected to a hub of mental health services. Many of them were established just months before the pandemic hit in March 2020 in what was once a mental health desert on San Antonio’s South Side.

Counselors say it was just in time, too: The six organizations at the hub were inundated with requests for services during the pandemic. Now, with the pandemic waning and reentry weighing on the minds of anxious students and families, they are going full steam to prevent disaster.

At the transition camp, Salgado and her colleagues are on alert for signs of what educators and health care providers are calling a “second pandemic” of mental health issues in young people.

“We want to keep them as motivated as possible,” Salgado said. Without someone making a deliberate effort to draw them out, she said, many remote learners will not simply bounce back into the social rhythms of school. “They just go back into their shell.”

While students are participating in transition camps, other family members can access counseling, addiction support and parenting classes.

The pandemic accelerated the demand for mental health care. Jewish Family Service of San Antonio, which provides counseling services at the hub, had expected to serve about 300 people in its first few months with the collaborative, said Talli Dolge, the organization’s CEO. By May 2020, it saw more than 1,600 people.

Demand stayed strong in the next school year: From Aug. 1, 2020, to May 27, 2021, the collaborative served 4,619 people.

Most of the counseling during the pandemic had to do with grief and fear as jobs disappeared, loved ones fell ill and domestic violence increased.

The collaborative weathered the pandemic using telehealth, including donating burner phones to families that didn’t have access to the necessary technology. Jewish Family Service continued seeing clients in person, and Communities in Schools, another collaborative partner, made house calls.

But now there is a new issue: reentry.

Kids started going back to school midyear, Dolge said, and the mental health crises exploded as the hazards of being isolated at home gave way to panic over returning to school.

“The crisis rates are up tremendously,” Dolge said. “Social anxiety is huge and across the board.”

It’s a daunting forecast, but two years ago it would have been devastating.

In 2018, student advocates in South San Antonio Independent School District hadn’t begun speaking out about the mental health challenges they faced, and the extraordinary lengths they had to go to in order to get help. Texas ranks 50th out of all states and the District of Columbia in access to mental health care for children and adults, according to Mental Health America, and the situation is far worse for lower-income communities like the South Side of San Antonio.

The first Mobile Mental Wellness hub opened at a building on the campus of a South San Antonio ISD elementary school in November 2019. Organizers didn’t know that a once-in-a-lifetime crisis would soon begin on the other side of the globe.

Going forward, experts say organizations like Rise Recovery, a hub partner, will have their work cut out for them. Alcohol, marijuana and prescription drug abuse rose during the pandemic as teens self-medicated in isolation.

Experts say they won’t really know how much until students return to school, where the eyes of teachers, coaches and counselors can spot the warning signs.

What worries Rise Recovery CEO Evita Morin and others are the new cases, the ones that have been hidden behind screens during remote learning.

“The lack of data [during the pandemic was] disturbing,” Morin said. “I’m not a fan of disciplining kids with addiction, but at least before COVID schools were catching drug use and they could report it to us.”

Because Texas schools started bringing a percentage of students back in the fall of 2020, educators got early glimpses of the coming mental health crisis. So even with the pandemic still raging in San Antonio, other school districts asked the collaborative to set up shop in their areas.

Neighboring school district Harlandale ISD launched its hub in November 2020, and Edgewood ISD, where the pandemic was falling heavily on working-class and impoverished neighborhoods on the city’s West Side, opened a hub in January 2021.

Altogether, the three hubs have created mental health care access for 23,535 students from pre-K to 12th grade.

For many, Dolge knows, the suffering is only getting deeper as the world moves forward, and trauma, anxiety and grief go unaddressed. She’s trying to raise more awareness in the community that help is within reach.

“If you didn’t know where to get help before,” Dolge said, “it’s so much more important to get help now.”

This article was originally posted on Returning to school as pandemic lingers, San Antonio students inundate counseling center

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