Close to Home: As schools reopen, focus on mental health

After years of fires, floods and power shutoffs, an untold number of students are returning to the classroom having lost family members and friends to the COVID-19 pandemic.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

As schools reopen, students return to more than just academics. When it comes to youth mental health, the toll of Sonoma County’s relentless string of disasters, followed by a year of isolation, must be addressed. We have a moral imperative to respond to this cry for help.

A recent YouthTruth survey of more than 18,000 Sonoma County high school students provides insights into the unique experiences of youth. When asked what makes it hard to do their best in school, 63% said they face at least one obstacle to learning. Of those students, 70% cited feelings of depression, stress or anxiety as the biggest barrier to learning — higher than the national average.

After years of fires, floods and power shut-offs, an untold number of students are returning to the classroom having lost family members and friends to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many more will return from households whose income was depleted from job loss, and they may themselves be core contributors to their families’ economic survival.

Karin Demarest
Karin Demarest

Connection with their school community and with their innate curiosity will help them heal and manage ongoing stress, but opening schools isn’t a panacea.

As students return, it will become clear that some need more help than others. The YouthTruth report reflects the experiences of thousands of young people in schools across Sonoma County. By elevating their voices, we can see that, for youth who were impacted by the fires or COVID-19, isolation from schools being closed has hindered their ability to cope. This is especially true for marginalized youth in the LGBTQ community and for youth who carry the heavy weight of racism or poverty. For these young people, the past year has been devastating.

We cannot ask the schools alone to solve these societal problems. We must wrap our collective arms around our students.

Youth report high levels of anxiety about their futures. How are we supporting students as they transition to the workforce or postsecondary education? What can we do to ensure graduates have housing they can afford? Can the business community create paid internships that enable school-aged youth to see potential career paths?

Youth report overwhelming feelings of depression. Are parents equipped with the skills to recognize the symptoms and obtain the tools for responding? How can we bring mindfulness practices to students and teachers? What can we do to bring the language of mental health into homes, breakdown stigmas and create safe spaces for dialogue?

Many local school districts contract with youth-serving nonprofit agencies to bring services onto their campuses. Let’s continue making these investments and bring in new partnerships that get kids connected to expanded arts and environmental education programs — two fields deeply linked to healing from trauma.

Studies of young people from pre-K to high school who survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005 revealed that a majority whose mental health was impacted still bore the scars 10 years later. Knowing this, and knowing that local students have been battered by not one but repeated disasters, we must work together to support them in their healing.

Educate yourself by reading the YouthTruth report (available at c2csonomacounty.org). Pledge to get involved. Volunteer or give to organizations supporting school-aged youth. Advocate for arts and environmental education programs. Talk to school administrators and attend school board meetings to ask what they are doing to keep youth mental health at the forefront as students return to school.

Sonoma County has rallied before to lift those most impacted by disaster; it’s time to do the same for our kids.

Karin Demarest is vice president for community impact for Community Foundation Sonoma County and chair of Cradle to Career Sonoma County, a cross-sector coalition whose mission is to prepare youth for success.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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