Area school counselors discuss classroom mental health in the age of COVID-19

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Area counselors spoke last week on the evolving need for mental health services in the school system during the Community Behavioral Health Conference.

The past year has been difficult and challenging for many people in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease has brought with it uncertainty, fear, anxiety and many other emotions that go well beyond its physical symptoms.

This is particularly true for many students across the region who have had the pandemic add to the stress and anxiety that comes with studying, planning for the future and simply growing up.

Area school counselors recently spoke on the challenges they are seeing in schools across the region and the resources they are using to provide mental health care to students throughout this time of uncertainty in their lives.

"The easiest thing you can do for mental health is teaching your students how to breathe," said Eileen Hays, coordinator for counseling and student services at Sherman Independent School District. "If you can do that for one minute at the beginning of the class and do it every class period, it just helps reset your brain."

Counselors from across the region participated in a panel discussion on mental health in the school system as a part of the Community Behavioral Health Conference last week. The event brought together representatives from many organizations to discuss mental health needs for the region.

Carrie Boettger, who serves as the lead counselor for Denison High School, dealt with students who were hit twice with a significant source of stress. With a focus on freshmen, she helped the students work their way through the change from middle school to high school, but also helped navigate through the emotions they were feeling due to the pandemic.

"Obviously, there is a big transition from middle school to high school anyway," she said. "Under COVID parameters it has been even more challenging."

Ccunselors worked to allay these fears by talking to students. In some cases, these conversations took place remotely due to the pandemic. However, a return to normality and the classroom was a significant help to many students, Boettger said.

"Many of my students were able to return to school, face to face, sooner than they expected because they realized they need to be here for social interaction," Boettger said, noting many struggled academically during the pandemic. 

Denison, along with many other districts implemented new programs throughout the past year to help provide the support needed while also monitoring the emotional state of students even moreso than in traditional years.

For Pottsboro, this came in the form of social-emotional education classes. Each week, students were given 45 minutes of education on how to focus on their own individual needs. The district also brought in a therapy dog who would visit twice a week.

"They (students) are social creatures, they need that social aspect and that has really helped their mental health," said Lori Washburn, Pottsboro ISD school counselor.

Jackie Melancon, representing DISD said these resources extended to teachers, who would often ask for these services. This would in turn would help the teacher with their own health while also providing them with a resource that can be used in the classroom.

Hays said the year also saw an increase in usage for resources aimed at employees. The district has a program that allows employees to receive up to six free mental health counseling sessions without the knowledge of the district.

One trend that followed across multiple districts over the past year was an openness to talking about mental health. Despite the existence of some lingering stigma, area counselors said they noticed an increased willingness to discuss mental health and one's own needs. 

"We are just having a lot more open conversations because we are just talking about this more," Boettger said.