School reopening conversation shines a light on student mental health

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
March 15, 2021 1 p.m.

As students return to school in-person, that may mean more direct access to mental health supports.

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there is help available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.


When teens in need call the YouthLine, a peer-to-peer crisis/help line, someone like 19-year-old Emma Cooper answers.

They could be calling about a number of things — from family or relationship issues, to mental health concerns, to contemplating suicide — but when they reach out to YouthLine, there’s someone they can relate to on the other end.

“There’s so many specifics about growing up, with everything that’s going on,” Cooper said.

“Even if we don’t know how to solve the problem better than the person reaching out, it’s still a mutual understanding.”

In the last year, Cooper, a lead volunteer for YouthLine, has heard a lot about COVID-19 and its impact. She’s heard from youth who tested positive for COVID-19, and were afraid to tell people they’d been in contact with. Some were dealing with anxiety about the virus and possible risks to family members.

She’s also heard from students struggling with school, or problems at home.

“Stressors of online school not being super accessible to people, or having a really hard time staying engaged,” Cooper said.

“A lot more contacts about people struggling being stuck in the house with their families, and that causing extra tension.”

Last year, YouthLine had more calls than ever before — 28,387 “contacts,” an increase of more than 8,900 from the year before. That number has been increasing for the last five years in general, but Cooper remembers an uptick when the pandemic started.

“There was definitely a change in what people are reaching out to us to talk about,” Cooper said.

With school still mostly remote in Oregon, students have been isolated and disconnected from their teachers and peers. In the ongoing, contentious conversation around reopening schools, advocates for returning in-person cite anecdotes about suicide or attempted suicide. At this point, there isn’t really data to show an increase is happening. Data published by the Oregon Health Authority shows there were fewer suicide deaths in 2020 compared to 2019, and fewer suicide-related visits to emergency departments and urgent cares for young people compared to 2019. But students are struggling. What’s unclear is whether reopening schools is the answer.

Gov. Kate Brown has often pointed to student mental health as a reason to reopen schools. In a statement to OPB, Brown’s deputy communications director Charles Boyle said the governor’s office has heard “compelling feedback” about challenges students have faced during the pandemic.

“[T]eachers and educators in schools are often some of the first people to notice and identify child abuse, neglect, and when a student needs help from behavioral health professionals — something that’s much more difficult when teachers and students are not in schools,” Boyle said in a statement, pointing to the importance of counselors and other specialists.

“The educational, social, emotional, mental and physical health of so many students is tied to their schools and to the personalized attention and support that educators provide.”

With Brown’s March 5 announcement to reopen schools, that help may be more accessible for some.

Effects of pandemic isolation at the student level

Emily, a 16-year old student at Lakeridge High School, says she and her friends check in on each other constantly. A recent classmate’s death by suicide has led to increased conversations around mental health and depression.

“Social isolation has been the cause of many of my mental health issues in the past year, as well as being in a whole new routine,” Emily said.

“I finally realized that I have anxiety,” said Alyssia, a 16-year-old student at Lincoln High School in Portland. “At one point in the year I had multiple breakdowns within a single week.”

Alyssia said she has joined a mental health class at school, and started an organization to teach elementary and middle school students about mental health.

Parker Sczepanik, assistant director of YouthLine Outreach and Education, says she sees the pandemic impacting youth who were struggling even before the pandemic.

“I think there’s a really large misconception that COVID equals mental illness, or COVID equals suicide,” Sczepanik said.

“What we’re seeing with our contacts on YouthLine is that COVID is intensifying those feelings, and intensifying the mental health challenges we’ve already been dealing with.”

Many youth are struggling because schools are closed. Others are thriving in distance learning.

For Sczepanik, one thing is clear from her classroom visits and outreach to youth: Students don’t have the direct support they used to have available every day, including trusted adults or close friends.

“Being out of school is definitely hindering their ability to access the supports that have maybe been really present for them in their lives,” Sczepanik said.

It can be more difficult to ask for help in a virtual school setting.

“It’s not as easy to linger in the hallway, and set up an appointment with your counselor, or go see that math teacher you really really like.”

But there is help, and support, whether through school resources, or through places like YouthLine.

At YouthLine, Sczepanik said volunteers don’t use “tips and tricks” to help the youth they talk to. They help them figure out for themselves how to cope and manage.

“We see a lot of contacts finding their own way by the end of the conversation, which is so hopeful to see them be able to recognize that this is what they need,” Sczepanik said.

Emma Cooper is a suicide attempt survivor herself, and she uses her own lived experience in her conversations with the people who reach out to YouthLine for support.


“I believe in peer support so strongly, Cooper said. “I think lived experience and the perspective of lived experience is so important.”

She recently shared her story as part of an MTV documentary called “Each and Every Day,” which featured young people from around the country who are suicide attempt survivors or have experienced suicidal ideation.

“One of the biggest things I took out of my experience is I always wish that people would’ve just trusted me, or trusted my word, or just listened to me,” Cooper said.

“I tried to bring that knowledge into my conversations with other people and try to empower them to come to their own conclusions about what’s right for them.”

In Bend, school is in session, and counseling is too

It’s been weeks since high school students in the Bend-La Pine schools have been back to classes in person. The largest Oregon district east of the Cascades has its oldest students come to school two days a week.

Rayne Cedergreen is a student success instructor at Bend Senior High. The job is a new one in the last year, and meant to support mental health needs of students.

“It’s new and exciting, and the timing could not be more appropriate,” Cedergreen said.

Cedergreen was just getting started in the role when COVID-19 shut down schools last March. Like many educators, she worked to keep students engaged in school both academically and socially.

“They are so phenomenal in terms of the way that they continue to move forward and adapt and grow during difficult circumstances,” she said.

But her students have felt disconnected, and isolated. Like Cooper and YouthLine, Cedergreen said she didn’t use any special “tips or tricks” when it came to offering support.

“There was nothing miraculous that we were doing as a support team,” Cedergreen said. “Often it was really just helping the students to tap in to that inner strength and keep pressing on even when it was really difficult.”

Even as the uncertainty over the pandemic’s end date continues.

“That uncertainty is really particularly difficult, I think for young people, because their frontal lobe is really not as developed as an adult,” Cedergreen said. “Being able to, think of those things in a rational way, is more challenging and they’re really in that emotional part of their brain.”

Now, as an educator at one of the largest districts in the state with high school students returning to school, Cedergreen can see how in-person contact has been beneficial.

“They need that feedback, that regular interaction, and they need the level of support that they can get by being in the building,” Cedergreen said.

But it’s been an adjustment. Cedergreen said the school continues to assess what social emotional skills students need, and help them with what they’re going through. At her school, staff are working on lessons to help students build skills like mindfulness and emotional regulation.

At the same time, she said it can be hard enforcing COVID-19 regulations like keeping students six feet apart from each other.

But she’s seen attendance “highly above” what it was before, including for students who were typically disengaged.

Cedergreen said she also has a deeper relationship with her students now — she’s more vulnerable and authentic in conversations. She hopes that continues.

“I am very transparent about my feelings about all of this because I think it helps for them to have that model — that this is a struggle for adults too, and we can have a lot of hope and be challenged,” she said.

For Summit High School student Hannah, she’s back to some in-person school. She enjoys seeing her friends in class, but “there’s also a lot of downsides,” she says, including anxiety and students testing positive for COVID-19. Summit recently reopened after closing for several days, because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Some students in Bend are choosing to stay home. Cedergreen said she’s grateful a district like hers offers that option.

“There’s a tough balance between social and emotional health, physical health ... everybody’s circumstances are really different,” Cedergreen said.

Lakeridge High School student Emily said a return to in-person school would mean additional stress and a disruption to her current school routine.

“We won’t really be able to interact with our peers or teachers in the same way,” Emily said.

Additionally, she’d like to see her school district, Lake Oswego, take student voice and feedback into consideration.

The reopening conversation continues, with some folks ready to go back and others wanting to wait.

For those who help young people work through their stress and anxiety when it can feel overwhelming, the pandemic has opened more discussion of mental health — and that’s a good thing.

“Everyone has struggled with their mental health at some point…” YouthLine volunteer Emma Cooper said.

“Just opening up a conversation about mental health however you can, wherever you can, is so important, and something everybody can do.”



Mental health resources from the Oregon Department of Education

Oregon Student Voice post on remaining mentally healthy during COVID-19