Detroit Public Schools Community District has offered guidance counselors, social workers and a mental health hotline for children who need the extra support, and the district wants those resources to continue into next school year—even after COVID relief funds are gone. (Shutterstock)

As the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, businesses and institutions have relaxed protocols and attempted a return to normalcy, including Detroit schools. 

But one of the lasting effects from the beginning of the pandemic are students’ struggles with their mental health. 

Detroit Public Schools Community District has offered guidance counselors, social workers and a mental health hotline for children who need the extra support, and the district wants those resources to continue into next school year—even after COVID relief funds are gone, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. 

The district funded COVID programs end June 30, Chrystal Wilson, the assistant superintendent of communications and marketing for the district, said via email. 

“There will be a gap of approximately $15 million if funds are not strategically placed to bridge the funding gap,” she said. “We will need to budget (at least) $5 million to sustain the mental health support we are currently providing to students.” 

The topic arose at the monthly Board of Education meeting when Vitti discussed the possibility of cutting some after school programming next year after the COVID relief funding runs out. Lauren Hatten, a senior at Cass Technical High School and a student representative for the school board, expressed concern about the possibility of mental health services being eliminated. 

“If we have to cut certain extracurriculars, that’s going to make it harder for students to be well-rounded,” she said, asking what the district will do to mitigate the fallout. 

“If we have to cut mental health resources, then that’s going to lead to students not being able to balance their mental health, especially students who can’t afford or access a therapist outside of school,” Hatten said. 

Vitti told Hatten that he doesn’t anticipate reducing mental health services and that he wants to maintain them even when there is no more COVID funding. 

Wilson said via email that DPSCD allocated $15 million for contract behavioral health services. Between $5 to $7 million is being spent on Tier 2 and Tier 3 mental health services out of the district’s $1.2 billion COVID relief budget, Vitti said during the board meeting. This includes resources like group or individualized interventions and therapy for students experiencing mild or significant distress or impaired functioning. 

Pandemic has led to an increase in anxiety, depression in kids 

Students were hit hard by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, as classes abruptly pivoted from in-person to remote. The isolation from their peers and teachers, as well as economic instability and family stress were contributing factors for kids’ own stress, according to Education Week. About 1 in 4 children across 11 countries, including the United States, experienced strong “distress,” during the pandemic. The most common health issues they experience are anxiety and depression, while younger children are more likely to develop Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). 

In addition, a study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that out of more than 3.3 million children nationwide, more than a third of those who contracted COVID-19 were diagnosed with a new mental health disorder within 30 days. ADHD and trauma and stress disorders were the most common, according to Education Week.  

In 2021, DPSCD invested $34 million in mental health services for students, staff and parents. Staff could take classes on topics such as emotional wellness, resilience, and well-being, while students received more one-on-one and small group support, reported Chalkbeat. 

Finding mental health professionals a challenge for district 

Along with figuring out funding to continue mental health services at schools, another challenge is finding enough counselors and social workers to be at the schools, Vitti said. 

The district has hired about 100 guidance counselors for its 107 schools, but there are 10 vacancies. Detroit is not alone, as school districts across the country are struggling to hire mental health professionals. 

Vitti said with one-time money like the COVID relief funds, it’s still difficult to hire enough people to provide those services. 

“Even if we wanted to hire more social workers or even mental health professionals, there are not enough people that are credentialed to even hire in those spaces,” he said. 

While the district’s mental health professionals are short staffed, the focus on student’s social and emotional well-being is paying off. Wilson said DPSCD is seeing an improvement in daily attendance, chronic absenteeism, a year or more of academic growth and grade-level proficiency. 

“We also demonstrated increases in our graduation rates, and we know counselors had a positive impact on this,” she said. 

The district plans to continue mental health services next school year through recurring revenue. 

“It’s important to have a balanced conversation about funding coming in, how you can use that funding and what are the ceilings or challenges in using that money in a one time way in a short amount of time that’s fiscally responsible,” Vitti said. “And I feel as a district we’ve done that.” 

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