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Princeton students address COVID-19’s harm on mental health

One of the negative impacts of COVID-19 has been the toll the pandemic has taken on adults’ and students’ mental health.

As local municipalities and school districts continue to assess the changes in mental health, the Princeton Youth Advisory Committee (PYAC) sought to address the topic of mental health directly in a forum discussion about potential solutions, current findings, and pandemic effects facing Princeton students and youth.

The panel discussion on March 11 featured Council President Leticia Fraga; Corner House Prevention Programs Coordinator Riva Levy, who is also a clinician at Princeton House Behavioral Health; Princeton Family Institute social worker and clinician Claudia Webster; and Princeton High School senior Yash Roy, who is a student liaison to the Princeton Board of Education.

Responses were read from Kristina Donovan, a supervisor of guidance K-12 at Princeton Public Schools.

“Our municipality, unfortunately, none of our boards and committees specifically address mental health issues. Mental health is something that is being highlighted in the pandemic as something that is sorely needed and that we need to pursue,” Fraga said. “I am aware that many families in our community, they recognize that their student is struggling not just academically through remote learning and also experiencing being stressed and having issues with their mental well-being.”

Fraga explained that the issue is also not hitting every family the same.

“For families that do not have the resources to access help, such as counseling, how are we going to provide that? I know early on that when our students were doing remote learning, one of the issue that came to the top was the lack of access to just technology but an internet connection,” she said. “Something we are still working on and coming soon through a grant made available to the municipality, we will be able to provide free WiFi at several of our affordable housing developments.”

During the discussion, Roy would spotlight a Board of Education student liaison survey, which was sent to Princeton High School students that showcased the stress contributing negatively to student well-being.

“I think a couple major issues stood out. Almost 80% of our students have felt overly stressed or overwhelmed in the last month. I think this shows just how stressful the entire situation with the pandemic has been with online school,” he said. “About 62% of the students surveyed, which is about 700 kids out of 1,600 at PHS, said their workload felt higher or above average from what they felt was normal or regular.”

On the opened-ended questions, they had a question for students on what has been working for them in school.

“It was pretty frightening to see more than half the people that wrote something, wrote there is nothing working,” Roy said.

He added that even though that might be an oversimplification, they did find that what was working had been more time to interact with their peers and more interactive classes. The importance on the reintroduction of clubs and activities, students having more conversations if for a short amount of time with their guidance counselor or teacher, were seen by Roy as a way to improve the negative impacts of the pandemic.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of the October 2020 House Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, 37.4% of New Jersey adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders compared to the national average of 37.7% during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, among the adults who reported experiencing symptoms, 19.8% had reported that they needed therapy or counseling, but did not receive it in the four-week period of the study, compared to the national average of 22.5% at that time.

Donovan noted to PYAC that during the current pandemic the volume of students utilizing mental services has increased. When asked about how Princeton Public Schools at large plan to work with the students moving forward, so all students can access the services without overwhelming counselors, she said by balancing small group counseling sessions with individual sessions is the best way to move forward.

“If a group of students are struggling with a similar issue there is much evidence to support small group counseling for students and meeting in small group session over a few weeks to help address these issues,” she said. “Obviously I would like to hire more counselors, but I am realistic about budget constraints.

“Another important factor is also supporting our counselors and sharing good news with them and not only bad,” she said.

Levy added to Donovan’s response by suggesting that students having different chat groups would be a great opportunity for students to talk.

“Not a therapeutic group, but more of an opportunity for the students to get together and talk. So at lunch time a small group of juniors will meet and chat,” she said. “There is such a need to be together and to talk and learn from each other. These kinds of informal gatherings could really make a difference.”

Additionally, Webster also suggested that there be the chats and clubs, but also have an international cultural night.

“Some fun socialization and maybe that could help. Start something every two weeks that would promote this getting together and inclusion,” she added.

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