How School Counselors Are Providing Crucial Support to Students During Omicron

Girl in a yellow shirt and headphones looks sadly at a computer screen

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Key Takeaways

  • Teens and young adults are presenting with depression and anxiety symptoms at higher levels than in previous years, and the spike has continued throughout the pandemic.
  • Mindfulness work, traditional therapy, and peer-to-peer counseling may be helpful resources.
  • School counselors and therapists suggest avoiding a "one size fits all" approach to mental wellness for teens now.

Many current high school and college students hardly remember what “normal” school—or the way we might have thought of it pre-COVID—is like anymore. For them, school means a series of remote periods followed by in-person periods, or an interminable time of hybrid instruction. 

This strain and uncertainty–and the fact that students are missing out on many normal social developmental experiences–means that mental health professionals who work with high school and college students have had to help students cope with a rising tide of mental health struggles.

In December, the Surgeon General of the United States warned of a phenomenon that many school counselors and youth therapists had been aware of for a long time: students in the United States were presenting with mental health problems at never-before-seen rates.

In a 53-page report, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murphy examined data which “cited significant increases in self-reports of depression and anxiety along with more emergency room visits for mental health issues,” according to a New York Times article. “In the United States, emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51 percent for adolescent girls in early 2021 as compared to the same period in 2019. The figure rose 4 percent for boys.” 

While we don’t know exactly when this pandemic is going to end and allow students’ lives to return to normal, there are some things young people and those who care for them can do to build resilience, according to youth mental health experts. 

One of those youth mental health experts is Jessi Gold, MD. She worked as a staff psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis for years and has since moved into private practice, though she still treats a large number of college students regularly.

A Challenged Foundation

Gold said that young people’s mental health was already “challenged” before the pandemic. 

“People don’t talk enough about that age group and how challenged their mental health was before COVID,” Gold said. “It’s not like they had amazing mental health and then COVID came and that was what caused all of the problems. Mental health in that age group has been struggling for a long time.”  

According to a Johns Hopkins study, mental illnesses such as major depression, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder tend to present in this age group.

 "I had a patient last year say something like, it feels like they pressed pause on my life and I’m just waiting for them to press play. And I’m doing okay with the fact that it’s on pause, but I don’t know how long I can be paused,” Gold remembered. The problem with this new, more infectious variant’s commensurate shutdowns, Gold said, is the fact that for a brief moment many young people felt their lives “unpause”—and now, they have to go right back. 

“It’s really upsetting,” she said. 

Building Emotional Resilience

Gold said that, while there is no one coping strategy that will work for everybody, it is important now more than ever to build internal emotional resilience. A key part of this is through talking to others rather than bottling up or belittling or diminishing your own emotions, something she said she sees young people do frequently, because they think their problems aren’t as bad as other people's. 

“The things they’re struggling with like not being able to go to a party or not being able to have a graduation feels silly, so they don’t think they’re allowed to talk about it,” she explained. “It’s like, well, I didn’t die, or my family member didn’t die, or even if they did, I don’t know that I should talk about that. They almost self-censor because they think other people are going to judge them or that they don’t deserve to have the feelings they’re feeling about things.”

Jessi Gold, MD

The things they’re struggling with like not being able to go to a party or not being able to have a graduation feels silly, so they don’t think they’re allowed to talk about it.

— Jessi Gold, MD

In a bit of unconventional advice, Gold said that social media can help, because it allows young people to feel less alone. 

“I do think that there are benefits to…having those conversations with each other and knowing that you're not the only person at home angry about this,” she said. 

At the High School Level

Post-high school young people aren’t the only ones whose mental health is under strain: younger kids, too, are navigating an entirely unfamiliar version of their day-to-day. That presents a challenge for high school counselors like Yolanda Curry, who started her current job at St. Charles West High School in St. Charles, Missouri shortly before the pandemic began. 

“Anxiety, depression, unfortunately, more suicidal ideation than you would like to see, that’s I think a big part of what we're seeing now,” Curry said. Meanwhile, for some students, returning to in-person from fully-remote schooling (as Curry’s school is currently doing) presents its own social and emotional challenges.

Some students, less isolated now in this phase of the pandemic, have struggled socially with reintegrating into the school environment. They end up having to relearn, Curry said, “How to do school.” 

Sitting in 80-minute blocks, filing from classroom to classroom, and having to go home and do homework on top of all of that, after a long remote period, can feel daunting.  “Because during the pandemic, a lot of kids just kind of tuned out—they weren’t really engaged at all. Some of these students are, obviously, having to learn how to do school.” 

Mindfulness Strategies

“Just taking a few minutes, you know, to get to know students and just let them know that you care about them, that you're there for them, really does open them up to being able to receive from you later,” Curry said. “The relationship piece is really important.” 

She uses various mindfulness strategies—one minute check-ins with students, for example, as well as an affirmation bulletin board—to help kids work through emotions they may be facing. 

In a review of 61 studies, researchers found that mindfulness in schools helped students’ cognitive and social-emotional functioning. Because of the wide variety in how mindfulness is taught, though, it’s hard to assess the effectiveness of any one technique. 

As such, Dr. Gold is uncomfortable “prescribing specific coping techniques to people” in a one-size-fits-all way. 

“I encourage people to take the time to figure out what you like to do to cope, and to view it more like hobbies, and self exploration,” she said. 

Youth Mental Healthcare Workers Feel the Strain

Both Gold and Curry say that one factor to consider here is the mental health of the youth mental healthcare providers themselves–and that honesty about the fact that they’re sharing their students’ and patients’ burden can make them more effective providers.  

“I think it's really important that health care workers are honest about what the experience is like for them because I actually think that helps with the younger populations,” Gold said, adding that young people “need people, not robots.” 

In Curry’s case, her district has hired an external company to bring in additional social workers to help with the increased caseload that in-house mental health professionals strain to handle on their own.  

“I think really having those outside agencies to be able to kind of come and help support our students who are really struggling is a tremendous help,” she said. “We're able to kind of share the load there with some of our kiddos who are really having a hard time.”

What This Means For You

New variants of COVID-19 cause emotional and mental strain to young people because they interrupt developmental milestones. It's important to check in with the young people in your life about how covid is affecting their mental health, and encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional if necessary. Mindfulness techniques are worth exploring, both inside and outside school.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. US Department of Health and Human Services. Protecting youth mental health: The U.S. Surgeon General's advisory.

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Mental health disorder statistics.

  3. Maynard BR, Solis MR, Miller VL, Brendel KE. Mindfulness‐based interventions for improving cognition, academic achievement, behavior, and socioemotional functioning of primary and secondary school studentsCampbell Systematic Reviews. 2017;13(1):1-144. doi:10.4073/CSR.2017.5