“Too Much Change”: Baltimore City Public Schools Grapples With A Post-Pandemic Mental Health Crisis

Students walk down the hallway at Leith Walk Elementary School in Baltimore City. Screenshot via @baltcityschools on Instagram.

Kameran Rogers was in seventh grade when his school closed. As the covid-19 pandemic unfolded, Rogers joined other students around the world who were now conducting daily lessons on a computer screen.

In Baltimore City—where Rogers is now a freshman in high school—-the end of seventh grade is a pivotal moment. The grade point average earned at the close of that school year will determine which high schools students are able to attend. With the transition to virtual learning, Rogers said many of his friends struggled to keep up. 

“It was really stressful,” Rogers said. “A lot of students weren’t really doing well, and a lot of students were stressing out virtually because they felt like they weren’t able to get the help that they needed.”

But Rogers’ eventual return to the classroom didn’t prove much easier. Though he said he struggled with distance learning, the shift to in-person schooling brought a new set of concerns.

“There was just too much change going on,” Rogers said. “And I can see how that could affect someone’s mental health because it did for me.”

 National trends of children’s mental health

Though many professionals have been sounding the alarm on kids’ mental health for years, the pandemic sparked a national conversation about youth struggling with stress, anxiety, and depression—some caused by pandemic-related losses and the interruption to social development.

In a 2020 survey by the Children’s Hospital in Chicago, 71% of the 1,000 parents interviewed reported that the pandemic had affected their children’s mental health, according to an article by the American Psychology Association. In another survey conducted the same year by America’s Promise Alliance, nearly a third of the 3,300 high school students included said they felt more depressed and unhappy than usual. 

Though the pandemic posed additional challenges for adults, kids were especially affected by the disruption to daily life and other consequences such as the loss of loved ones, said Sarah Warren, BCPS’ executive director of Whole Child Services & Support. “I think we are seeing that playing out in schools.”

Resources for Baltimore City students

Warren coordinates mental health services within the city school system, and she said the teachers, social workers, school leaders, and other staff she works with have reported concerns about increased stress and pressure among students.

For kids in Baltimore, the city school system offers many resources and mental wellness measures, including student wellness support teams—a coordinated group of school employees, such as social workers, psychologists, and guidance counselors, designed to identify students who need help and provide holistic support. 

The district also requires schools to set aside time each day for students to share their concerns, check-in with their feelings, and connect with their peers and school staff. At the elementary school level, the practice is called “morning meeting,” and for middle and high schoolers, this period is referred to as “advisory.”

“We know when it comes to mental health and social emotional well being, that relationships are key. That’s also what the research around trauma shows,” Warren said. “One of our big areas of focus is just on ensuring that our adults build strong relationships with our students, and that our students have at least one person in the building that they feel comfortable with.”

Each BCPS building has at least one social worker and an assigned psychologist, who often serves multiple buildings, Warren said. The city school system also has a program called expanded school behavioral health, which partners with outside organizations to bring in additional mental health support.

Obstacles to access

Though Warren said the behavioral health program has received national recognition and additional funding, city schools have struggled to expand its services, due to a nationwide shortage of school and mental health employees. 

“Our goal is really to add social workers and to add expanded school behavioral health clinicians,” Warren said. The program is currently in 131 schools with plans to eventually adopt it district-wide. “But we haven’t been able to do that yet because of the national shortage of mental health clinicians. It’s not really taking away our support services, but it is inhibiting our ability to expand as we want to.”

A general shortage in mental health providers isn’t the only hurdle—city schools also lack Black clinicians in particular, said Nia Jones, a consultant with the Black Mental Health Alliance for Education and Consultation, Inc., an organization dedicated to training both youth and adults to tackle mental health issues with a culturally-relevant approach. 

Jones is a licensed social worker, and she co-leads much of the alliance’s youth programming. She said that many of the students she works with often find difficulty connecting with the often white therapists and counselors in the school system.

“I’ll hear from young people, ‘I really just want a therapist who looks like me,’” Jones said. “And somebody that’s going to be committed to it. So often we get white clinicians in Baltimore City Public Schools, and folks who are just trying to get their hours and then they leave. No one really stays in the community.”

Even with more Black and long-term clinicians, students may still hesitate to reach out to the school’s designated mental health providers, Jones said, a concern echoed by high school freshman, Kam Rogers.

“A lot of people who are really closed off can’t go to those people. There’s no sense of comfortability. You don’t see your guidance counselor every day. You don’t see the school nurse every day,” Rogers said, adding that most of his peers either go to each other or to their teachers for mental health concerns. 

To help young people support each other in these moments, the Black Mental Health Alliance partners with schools and youth-led organizations to provide mental health advocacy training that includes skills such as how to safety plan when a friend says they want to harm themselves. 

“Young people are the first line of defense for their friends,” Jones said. “If we can try to get in front of it, to mitigate it, to be able to have a little bit of risk management at the friend level, I think that’s very powerful.”

In the future, Jones said she hopes to grow her team to accommodate training in all high schools across the city, and eventually, turn mental health into a class like home economics or physical education.

 “How amazing would it be to be able to save somebody’s life?” Jones said.

Editorial Disclaimer: Reporting for this story was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and we thank them for their support. However, the findings and conclusions presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.

13 thoughts on ““Too Much Change”: Baltimore City Public Schools Grapples With A Post-Pandemic Mental Health Crisis”

Leave a Reply

Commenting on posts is open to our supporters.

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to The Block Newsletter

We’re your one-stop shop for trustworthy, local news and information in Baltimore.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.