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'Not something that normally happens here': Kids' behavioral and mental health issues soared during pandemic, and it's not over

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Jennette Barnes
/
CAI
Falmouth High School adjustment counselor Katie Fauth, center, sits for a photo with students after talking about the long-term effects of the pandemic on young people's academic, social, and emotional lives.

Part 1 of a two-part series. Click here to read or listen to Part 2.

The bell rings at Falmouth High School, and students file into the hall to change classes, filling the space with youthful voices.

These halls are bright and filled with art, and the sound of the bell is a gentle jingle — nothing like the clang that used to send high school freshmen everywhere into an anxious rush.

But students have plenty of other things to worry about.

Abbie, who will be a senior next year, is sitting in a staff office, taking a moment to talk.

“The pandemic definitely made things more difficult, because it kind of threw, like, a big wedge in the middle,” she says.

She was a freshman here in 2019, and she spent some time away from school for anxiety management. She’d only been back a short time when the building shut down because of COVID-19.

When she returned, she felt like the progress she’d made had gotten lost.

“That was really hard, getting back into it at first,” she says. “But it helped because the classes were smaller, because like half the people were at home.”

Then, last fall, everyone came back to school in person, full-time.

“And that's been pretty okay. It was tough at the beginning, but I did really well,” she says.

Which is great to hear. But in many ways, life is not back to normal at schools around the region.

Isolation and Its Aftermath

Educators and counselors say the effect on student behavior and mental health is far from over.

“Since the pandemic, the numbers of students going to the hospital for mental health crises has gone up tremendously,” said Katie Fauth, an adjustment counselor at Falmouth High School.

She manages the Bridge Program, which supports students academically, emotionally, and socially as they re-enter school from an extended absence.

“Students that had anxiety were able to hide in their house for a long time,” she said. “To get back has been really challenging for them.”

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Jennette Barnes
/
CAI
Kathleen English tutors students in the Bridge Program at Falmouth High School. The program supports students returning from an extended absence.

So, academic progress isn’t the only thing that’s running behind.

And student behavior in school has been a broad problem.

Some are having trouble conforming to the structure of in-person school, said Tom Scott, executive director the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“A lot of these kids aren’t socialized as well as they would normally be, being out of school for that long,” he said. “That's a huge, monumental piece. … I don't think people have any comprehension about the challenges that's created.”

As they spent more time on social media to ease the isolation, some students got caught up in destructive trends.

One day this spring, Nantucket high schoolers were sent home early after what English teacher Page Martineau said was a “coordinated attack” on the plumbing.

“We had what they believe to be art clay flushed down our toilets, which stopped up the system,” she said.

Most of the bathrooms had to be closed. She said destruction in the bathrooms has happened a few times, starting with a TikTok challenge in the fall.

“Graffiti and fake blood, and … no sinks were ripped off the walls or anything, but certainly doors have been taken down, that kind of thing,” she said. “That's just not something that normally happens here.”

'Never this bad‘

Some districts have hired more social workers, counselors, and psychologists, if they can get them with the high cost of housing on the Cape and Islands.

The Dennis-Yarmouth schools did make some new counseling hires, said Superintendent Carol Woodbury, “just to make sure that every child is seen and heard when they need to be seen and heard.”

“I think, as human beings, we need other people,” she said. “And I think kids were missing that.”

She said some things kids missed are easy to teach — like showing second-graders how to eat in the cafeteria for the first time.

But other things are much harder.

Sheila House, a mental health counselor who directs youth and family services for the town of Harwich, said students are out of practice about what behavior crosses the line.

“A lot of the behaviors that you're seeing in the schools — that I've heard of, from my colleagues all over Cape Cod — is sort of kids talking inappropriately to each other, talking inappropriately to teachers,” she said.

Counselors are saying they’ve never seen it this bad, said Barbara Dominic, an independent clinical social worker who worked in the Nauset schools and now consults for Barnstable County.

She said professionals are reporting, “in general, more extreme behavioral problems with students, and of course, kids failing classes, failing in one or more classes, when prior to the pandemic they were not.”

It’s probably not fair to say these changes are only related to the pandemic, but some are the direct result of social isolation, Dominic said.

“Especially the learning gaps, the increase in social skills development [needs] for the younger kids, kids who maybe are not as actively pursuing their futures, whether it’s with college or other future education plans … Those are things that I would say have a direct connection,” she said.

In Part 2 of this story, we look at how the pandemic deepened students’ use of technology — for better and worse.

In the meantime, Barbara Dominic says the community should understand that coping with the pandemic may take longer than we thought.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.