Counselor Becky Mendoza has students walking into her office quaking and overwhelmed by anxiety. She's talking with more teenagers contemplating suicide, and she's noticing more fights breaking out. Her caseload at St. Paul's Como Park High School includes a long list of students who, until this year, had never come in with a mental health concern.
As the co-president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association, she's hearing counselors from all corners of the state echo the same alarming message: The mental health needs of students this year are more acute than ever.
"The coping skills and strategies students used to survive the last two years outside of the school building may have worked for them there," Mendoza said. But they don't necessarily work within a classroom. "And that's when you start seeing more issues."
That's led to a rise in bullying, more explosive outbursts and a widespread increase in forms of insubordination, school social workers and counselors say. One suburban district has seen a threefold increase in the number of students referred to mental health support staff. In some cases, severe mental health crises at school cause enough disruption and safety concerns to trigger building lockdowns.
Making matters worse, students lost opportunities to build social skills and develop emotional maturity during periods of distance learning, said Rachel Hilyar, assistant director of prevention and safety for the Elk River school district.
"If you have a skill deficit or some unresolved trauma, your response may translate into disruptive behaviors," Hilyar said. "If we don't have those mental health and social and emotional needs met, students can't learn."
Schools across the state are using federal funds to invest in mental health support for students — adding more counselors and therapists and offering more professional development for staff aimed at supporting student needs. But widespread staffing shortages have meant some schools are struggling to fill those positions, particularly the jobs for school-based licensed mental health professionals.
Many rural schools still have just one counselor, tasked with meeting the mental health needs of students while also helping them with academics and college preparation.
Minneapolis schools recently created a team of mental health support specialists to provide one-to-one services as well as crisis intervention in the schools. The city's public schools no longer have school resource officers who could help respond to the most serious incidents.
If the schools' emergency management and mental health support teams need outside help to handle a situation, they can call 911 and ask for a responder trained in mental health crises. Still, that response time may be a long one — those programs are understaffed and typically triage calls, said Judy Brown, the manager of mental health supports for the Minneapolis school district.
Schools occasionally have gone into lockdown to contain a situation, particularly if a student is trying to leave the building, Brown said. Even at the elementary level, students have run out of schools and into traffic, she said. The goal of any lockdown is to maintain the safety of the student in crisis as well as other students.
Overall, students are just quicker to act out — their fuses are shorter, their tolerance for frustration diminished, Brown said.
"Students are really struggling to acclimate back into school buildings," she said. "We're living in a time when there's more anxiety and stress because of the sheer uncertainty of so much in their lives. … People's emotional thresholds are at their limit."
Maggie Walker, a junior at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, said that she's seen that uncertainty breed anxiety and apathy among her peers, and she feels it, too. It's been hard to know what to invest themselves in, she said, because it seems like the ever-changing course of the pandemic could again take away opportunities and events, such as a long-awaited theater performance or even prom.
Walker has seen a few of her peers go from engaged, high-achieving students to reluctant participants who rarely finish an assignment on time. The pressure of catching up academically can feel like too much, she said.
"We maybe learned how to keep our heads above the water last year but not necessarily how to swim," Walker said. "I feel like I'm just treading water."
In addition to creating new staff positions and teams, schools across Minnesota are investing in programs to help students develop their resiliency and coping skills.
One such program, called EmpowerU, is offered online to students in 50 school districts across the state. The curriculum offers personalized lessons on goal setting and ways to overcome challenges.
"We're putting as many kids as we can into it," said Carolle Huttemier, a school counselor for South Washington County Schools. "I'm seeing so many more students who are really having a hard time keeping up and managing stress."
Still, she's heartened to see more students seeking help. The stigma of mental health struggles is changing, she said, especially among young people.
Elementary students, however, may not have the language to describe how they're feeling, said Chantelle Vaughn, a social worker at Centennial Elementary School in Richfield.
"Behaviors are the way children express what's going on," Vaughn said. She's seen more students acting out from the very start of the school year — ripping posters off the wall or refusing to go to class. Vaughn is worried that she's spending so much time responding to outbursts, she has less time to do preventive work with kids.
At Richfield Middle School, social worker Joey Corcoran aims to be as "visible and accessible as possible" this year, even offering snacks in his office to encourage students to come in for a quick check in.
"Students who would have flown under the radar in a normal academic year are really struggling, too," he said.
Despite the challenges, in St. Paul, Mendoza said she's hopeful — this year is highlighting the role of mental health resources within schools, and districts are responding.
"The pandemic put a magnifying glass on these issues in education," she said. "You really can't ignore it anymore."
If you or a loved one is at risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text MN to 741741.