As school districts prepare to welcome back students for in-person teaching and remote learning in New York, the Mental Health Association in New York State is offering expanded resources for teachers, students, parents and guardians.
WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Amy Molloy, the project director of the School Mental Health Resource and Training Center, about the Association’s efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Molloy: Back in 2018, we received some funding from the New York State Government to establish a resource center to help schools implement a law that took effect in July of 2018. That requires schools to teach students grades K through 12, about mental health. And so we already had this structure in place where we were not only providing resources to schools so that they could develop their curriculum to comply with that law, but also to provide professional development to schools. So that everyone in the school district had a basic understanding of mental health, and that they could support the mental health and wellness of students. And we also were offering some resources to families. So with the pandemic and the closing, or the move to remote learning, we were well positioned to be able to provide some resources not only to educators, but to families as well.
Levulis: So my understanding is there's a couple webinars coming up as schools do prepare to either reopen for in person classes or as you mentioned, virtual that the association is offering.
Yes, absolutely. So, one thing that happened is we received some funding from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation this year to provide some family education, work through webinars and online resources. So we've been doing that since the beginning of the year. Every month we have a 30 minute monthly educational informational webinar for families around topics related to mental health and then later this month. We are hosting two webinars called cultivating educator resiliency. And these were programs that we had developed last year really in response to schools who said, you know, as important it is to teach kids about mental health, we want to be helping our staff understand their own wellness, and give them the tools and the resources that they need to stay well, so that they can do the work that they need to do, which we know for teachers, even in normal, quote, unquote, normal circumstances is really challenging. And now it turns out that this has been a great resource, I think for schools given the situation. So we have two upcoming webinars, called cultivating educator resiliency. And then a few weeks ago, we hosted an information panel, where we invited some teachers from across the state just to participate and take some time to kind of debrief and reflect on the end of the school year last year with the remote learning and then to talk a little bit about what they were doing to support their own wellness. Summer and what their plans were to connect with students and, you know, move into the next school year regardless of what that looks like. And following up with that, we decided that it probably be a good idea to offer a similar panel for parents. So on September 3, we have a parent that we have a panel of a few parents from across New York State, who will again just kind of talk about what some of the challenges were at the end of the school year last year, how it affected families, what they're doing kind of this summer to regroup and process everything, and what their plans are moving into the next year.
And you mentioned you did get some feedback from teachers when the last school year ended. What was some of that feedback? What were they experiencing with the pandemic hitting New York and the shift to remote learning?
Well, I think as you can expect many of them you know, they were it was a stressful situation. They were certainly concerned about their students. They were concerned about their own families, many of them were trying to balance teaching their school children as well as teaching and kind of monitoring their own children. But at the same time, it was really interesting to hear the kind of how much they learned through the process. Teachers who had previously been, you know, kind of uncomfortable with technology, we're getting more comfortable with it, teachers who were feeling that they had a lot more ability to be creative, in the work that they were doing, because they had all these different tools and resources available to them. Many teachers that they were establishing really kind of nice relationships with their students because they got to spend some one on one time with them. And also they got to know their families and their, you know, in their home and life in a way that they might not have known before. And they got to share that side of themselves as well. So whereas before students saw their teachers as a teacher, they began to see their teachers as you know, A mom or dad, or an aunt or sibling, and it was just a very different kind of relationship, an opportunity to build relationships.
And I'm sure some of this will be covered in the upcoming webinars, but do you have any tips suggestions for students, teachers, parents, guardians, and anybody else who might be anxious or stressed out about the return to schooling?
I think the first part is just to be open and honest about that whatever your concerns are communicated to the people around you. Ask for help when you need it. I think a lot of times we feel that stress and anxiety when we feel like that we have no kind of control over things. So I think just recognizing what we can control what we can do. To keep ourselves well to keep our loved ones well is really important. And things like routines are extremely helpful as well getting a good night's sleep getting in some exercise. I think a lot of us have kind of learned to identify our own tips and coping strategies that kind of get us through this, you know, difficult and challenging time. And we need to just make sure that we continue to use those. I think also, you know, we have to just be open about how we are feeling and how we're feeling emotionally. And at the Mental Health Association, we have worked for many, many years, decades, in fact, to try to reduce stigma, to raise awareness about mental health. And one of the things that we're seeing is people are talking more about mental health and emotional wellness. And we think that that's really important. So continuing to do that, find the strategies that work for you take care of your physical health, because our physical health and our mental health aren't related and really just surround yourself with supportive people.
And you did mention the law that was enacted in 2018 in New York State requiring mental health education in schools. Now obviously understand that is fairly recent when that was enacted, and there was a very unusual school year, last school year and now this upcoming one, but has the association been able to track the impacts of those, those new programs in schools, etc?
Well, the interesting thing is that New York State did allow schools to develop their own curriculum. So every school is doing something differently, which makes it a little bit more challenging to track. But anecdotally, we know a few things. We know first, that over 70% of schools have in some way reached out to us either, you know, one or two staff members have been looking for resources on the website. they've invited us in for professional developments. They've attended some of our online trainings. So we know that there is a lot of interest and people are really, you know, doing what they need to do to be able to implement the law. We also know that people had been a lot of teachers classroom teachers, health educators have been talking about mental health, the long gave them sort of a little bit more structure a little bit more opportunities to say, okay, we really do have to talk about this. So the impact of that, I think will be some time before we really know and understand. But I, I think in hindsight, it was a really important law because it did elevate the conversation about mental health among students and schools, administrators, teachers, staff, and families. And perhaps we'll never know, but perhaps that put us in a better position when we move to kind of this remote learning and as we've, as we've worked through things like the pandemic, like, you know, social unrest and the social and justices and I think a lot of students are feeling that and responding to that, and that is another kind of layer of stress and anxiety that needs to be discussed. So they are, I just think that maybe we've put ourselves in a better position to manage this because this wasn't a new conversation for us. So when we talk about relationships now, when we talk about the importance of taking care of your emotional wellness, when we talk about building resiliency and working to reduce the effects of trauma in schools, these conversations have been happening. And that's really important.
And I know you mentioned that each school district is different, but is the mental health education typically folded into what would be your health class?
Typically, yes, at the middle school and high school level. Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of mental health education, students get one semester of health and middle school and one semester of health in high school, so many teachers will tell you that's not enough health and discussions around mental health. So we know a lot of ELA teachers talk about the topic when they're sometimes reviewing some novels as students have read it might come up as a theme. We know many social studies teachers talk about it from a historical perspective. They talk about things like mindfulness and the context of when they talking about like, for example, different religions. Because we know that mindfulness practice was is has its roots in religious practice, although, you know, it's a very, like kind of commonplace non-religious practice now. So there's a lot of opportunities across curriculums to talk about it. at the elementary level, it really is folded into kind of those everyday classroom discussions around social emotional learning about how can you be a good friends about how do you recognize your emotions and how do you respond appropriately to uncomfortable emotions, so it's self-awareness, self-management, even at those very early elementary ages. Those are important skills that get included in sort of mental health education and it's really an important foundation for young students to understand their emotions and how they can practice good coping skills. So that when they do get into middle school in high school and they start learning more about mental health disorders and treatments that are available and things of that nature, they, they have that basic foundation of mental health and they they're viewing mental health as something more than just, you know, you have an illness or you don't have an illness. Mental health is something that we all have just like we all have physical health, and there's things that we can do to keep ourselves well.