A San Antonio mental health wilderness has become a beacon of counseling services for thousands of children and families, just as the pandemic struck


The Second Pandemic – Avoiding a Childhood Mental Health Crisis: As Many Children Prepare to Return to In-Person Learning Amid alarming reports from around the world indicating an escalating crisis surrounding children’s mental health , some communities are rushing to get out of the gloomy predictions. In Texas, teachers and mental health providers are strengthening support systems, investing in children’s resilience, and expanding what works as they continue to fight for the future of the COVID-19 generation. This is the second in a three-part series examining these efforts.

FFor years, children from Veronica Salgado’s “transition camps” have enrolled because they are eager to take the difficult step from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school.

But this summer, after more than a year of isolation, the struggle to keep up with e-learning and little contact with friends, Salgado and his team see bigger problems than helping kids figure out how to find their lockers or make new friends.

Anxiety levels skyrocket as kids worry about their ability to keep up with schoolwork, concentrate in a room full of peers, and navigate social situations with peers they don’t have. seen face to face for over a year. The need is so great that some of the children in the camp are in non-transitional classes.

“Everything is on the bridge, for sure,” Salgado said of the camps, now connected to a mental health service center, many of which were established just months before the pandemic struck in March 2020 in what was once a sanity wasteland in southern San Antonio. Side.

Advisers say it was also just in time: the six organizations at the center were inundated with requests for services during the pandemic. Now, with the decline of the pandemic and the return to school weighing on the minds of anxious students and families, they are going full blast to avert disaster.

At the transition camp, Salgado and his colleagues are on the lookout for signs of what educators and health care providers are calling a “second pandemic” of mental health issues among young people.

“We want to keep them as motivated as possible,” said Salgado. Without someone making a deliberate effort to get them out, she said, many distant learners won’t just bounce back into the social rhythms of school. “They just go back to their shells.”

While students attend transition camps, other family members can access counseling, addiction support, and parenting classes.

The pandemic itself initially accelerated the demand for mental health care. Where they expected to provide around 300 people with counseling and related services in their first months with the collaboration, said Talli Dolge, CEO of Jewish Family Service, which provides counseling at the center, in May 2020, his organization numbered more than 1,600.

Demand remained strong for the next school year: from August 1, 2020 to May 27, 2021, the collaborative served 4,619 people.

Much of the advice during the pandemic was related to grief and fear as jobs disappeared, loved ones fell ill and domestic violence increased.

The collaboration weathered the pandemic through telehealth, including donating cell phones to families who lacked access to the necessary technology. Family Services continued to see clients in person, and Communities in Schools, another collaborative partner, made home visits.

But now there is a new problem: back to school.

The kids started going back to school in the middle of the year, Dolge said, and mental health crises instantly exploded – the risks of being isolated at home gave way to total panic at home. idea of ​​going back to school.

“Crisis rates have increased tremendously,” Dolge said. “Social anxiety is huge and widespread.”

It’s a daunting forecast, but two years ago it would have been devastating.

As of 2018, student advocates at South San Antonio ISD had not begun to speak out about the mental health issues they were facing and the extraordinary efforts they had to make to get help. Texas ranks 50h out of 51 states (and the District of Columbia) for access to mental health care for children and adults, and the situation is much worse for low-income communities like the South Side of San Antonio. .

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The first mobile mental wellness center opened in a building on the campus of an ISD elementary school in South San Antonio in November 2019, unaware then that a once-in-a-lifetime crisis would soon begin on the other end. of the world.

Going forward, experts say organizations like Rise Recovery, a hub partner, will have their work cut out for them. The abuse of alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs increased during the pandemic as teens treated themselves.

Experts say they won’t really know how much until students return to school, where the eyes of teachers, coaches and counselors can spot the warning signs.

What worries Rise Recovery CEO Evita Moin and others are the new cases, the ones that have been hidden behind screens during distance learning.

“The lack of data (during the pandemic was) disturbing,” said Morin, “I’m not a fan of disciplining drug addicted children, but at least before COVID schools catch drug use and we can do it. report.”

Because Texas schools began to bring back a percentage of students in the fall of 2020, educators got their first glimpse of the coming mental health crisis. So even with the pandemic still raging in San Antonio, other school districts have asked the collaborative to move to their district.

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The neighboring Harlandale ISD school district launched its hub in November 2020, and Edgewood ISD, where the pandemic was hitting the working-class and poor neighborhoods of the city’s West Side heavily, opened a hub in January 2021.

In total, the three poles created access to mental health care for 23,535 students from kindergarten to grade 12.

For many, Dolge knows, the suffering only gets worse as the world moves on, and the trauma, anxieties, and heartache go unresolved. She tries to make the community more aware that help is at hand.

“If you didn’t know where to get help before,” said Dolge, “It’s so much more important to get help now. “

For COVID-19 Mental Health Support Call Texas’s 24/7 toll-free helpline at 833-986-1919. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to text a trained crisis counselor.

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