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How Schools Are Helping Students With Mental Health As They Return To Campus

A young woman in her teens poses for a picture with a laptop in a darkened room. Her face is dark and obscured by backlighting through a bright window.
In this photo illustration, a teenager poses for a picture with a laptop in Arlington, Virginia, June 11, 2021.
(Olivier Douliery
AFP via Getty Images)
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For a two-week stretch last November, Elizabeth Simon barely got out of bed. She didn’t want to eat. She wouldn’t log in for her high school classes, even though they were all online. Her grades slipped.

Schools May Be Open Again, But The Pandemic Mental Health Crisis Among Students Is Far From Over

“I don’t know whether to describe it as burnout or I was depressed,” explained Simon, who’s now 16. “There was nothing wrong with me physically, it was mostly mentally.”

Concerned, Simon’s parents found a private therapist. The counseling helped a lot, she said; she’s feeling better.

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But Simon knows it’s clear she’s not alone in her struggles. Most students returned to her high school campus, Bravo Medical Magnet in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, just two weeks ago — and she said her classmates seem unusually overwhelmed for this early in the school year.

Already, the high school senior said, “a lot of people seem mentally drained.”

'The Gateway To More Support'

The coronavirus pandemic has cost public school students a lot. During distance learning, many pupils missed required classes or saw their grades drop. Still, over the last year, many students report their mental health has suffered far more than their transcripts.

In a survey released by the American Civil Liberties Union, students from more than 50 school districts across California reported a marked decline in their “mental wellness” since the pandemic’s onset — and 57% of them did not have access to counseling services over the last year, either in or out of school.

“That’s probably the number one thing we need to be focused on for our students as they return to school: recognizing that the pandemic is a traumatic experience,” said California’s state schools superintendent, Tony Thurmond, in a recent press conference.

I’ve had multiple kids in the office still going through the residual effects, because we’ve returned to campus life as it once was … but it doesn’t feel the same to them.
— Josh Godinez, counselor at Centennial High School in Corona-Norco Unified; president, California School Counselors Association

Many school districts are using billions in state and federal aid to boost mental health services on their campuses. For example, the L.A. Unified School District plans to spend $177 million to hire nearly 1,500 new mental health workers, including nearly 900 psychiatric social workers — roughly one for each of the district's schools.

(Outside the school setting, California’s budget also includes increased funding for mental health services for young adults up to age 25.)

Kimberly Nava, a senior at the Bernstein High School complex in Hollywood, hopes the influx of spending will make it easier for her classmates to see a counselor on her campus. Before the pandemic, she got the sense that her school’s counseling staff was stretched thin. “I’d hope that this is the gateway to having more support,” said Nava, who is 17.

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Out Of Isolation, But Still Feeling Alone

California School Counselors Association president Josh Godinez said districts are following through on promises to hire more counselors.

Pre-COVID, Godinez said it was considered a luxury to have a counselor to serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade — but now, he said the number of counselors in elementary and middle schools is on the rise.

But even with reinforcements arriving, mental health professionals in schools are likely to be stretched thin. There’s a shortage of trained psychologists available for schools to hire.

Even Godinez — who himself works as a high school counselor in Corona-Norco Unified — said that in his office, he finds he’s “doing a lot more triaging than I ever have.”

“Since we’ve gotten back,” Godinez said, “every day, I’ve had multiple kids in the office still going through the residual effects, because we’ve returned to campus life as it once was…but it doesn’t feel the same to them.”

Some students are running up against the cold reality that they didn’t learn much while they were home, Godinez said. Others are working through the stress of returning to campuses full of people, but having trouble verbalizing their anxieties.

Students seated in a first period class at Narbonne High School, an L.A. Unified School District campus in Carson. Students are seated at long tables, writing in notebooks and binders and viewing images on a Smartboard at the front of the classroom.
Students seated in a first-period class at Narbonne High School, a LAUSD campus in Carson, on Aug. 16, 2021.
(Kyle Stokes

Paradoxically, Godinez said some students come into his office to say that the end of their isolation has led them to feel even more alone on campus.

Godinez asked one student why.

“I can’t really tell you,” he remembers the student responding, “because I’m around a lot of people and last year I was in my bedroom — but I still feel very alone, like nobody understands me.”

This is a common response among teens, said Caroline Lopez-Perry, an associate professor at Cal State Long Beach, who helps coordinate the university’s training program for school counselors. She said adolescents often feel self-conscious about their social standing, academic performance and their appearance — but COVID-19 has “heightened” their focus on their own struggles.

“They often feel like they’re the only one going through this,” Lopez-Perry said.

“As we work through this,” Godinez added, “it’s going to take time.”

Eroding Stigmas — And Mounting Stress

Roughly 12% of public school students saw access to a counselor or therapist at school during the 2020-21 school year, according to the ACLU survey. About 20% of students saw an outside counselor or therapist. The counseling status of another 11% was unclear, and more than half received no help at all.

But access is only one barrier to mental health services in school districts like L.A. Unified, where three-quarters of students are Latino.

“Latin culture,” explained recent LAUSD high school graduate Abraham Flores, “is very much a culture of repressing your feelings.”

Flores identifies as Latinx — and he said sometimes the response from family members to a mental health crisis is this: get over it.

“'What are you doing crying'?” Flores said, demonstrating the response. “Or just, ‘ponte las pilas’ — it literally translates to ‘put on some batteries.’ You have no reason to be sad, or other people have it worse.”

During the commencement ceremony at Belmont High School, an L.A. Unified School District campus near downtown, a graduating senior wears green robes and a mortarboard decorated with the words: "I wanted to give up but then I remembered who I was." She's standing on a football field next to other graduating students who are assembled at socially-distanced folding chairs.
During the commencement ceremony at Belmont High School, an L.A. Unified School District campus near downtown, a graduating senior wears a mortarboard decorated with the words: "I wanted to give up but then I remembered who I was."
(Kyle Stokes

The pandemic may have eroded some of that stigma. The ACLU reported nearly a third of the students surveyed experiencing the loss of a loved one to COVID-19.

Nava, the Bernstein High School student, has been lucky in that her family has remained healthy. Still, she said this year has been difficult for everyone — and she senses her peers are ready to ask for help, including from one another.

“If I’m feeling scared one day,” Nava said, “I know I can talk to a friend who’s probably feeling the same way, and get some support from them as well.”

Simon, in Boyle Heights, said her fellow high school seniors are still worried about how last year will affect their future plans — especially if their grades dropped, especially after missing out on sports or after-school activities that they may have been banking on to secure admission to a good college.

“It’s like, ‘How is this going to look on college applications?’” Simon said. “‘How can I explain this?’”

At her school, many students are the children of immigrants who expect them to go to college. Simon, whose family is from Guatemala, is one of them.

“It’s this huge stress,” she said, “because our parents are making us go to college and yes, it’s a huge privilege to go — but it’s also this very, very, heavy thing to be carrying on your back.”

Simon is still going to private therapy — that’s one reason why she’s doing much better. But she knows many of her classmates need an outlet of their own.

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).