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How to Help Students Struggling Post Pandemic (A guest blog series by Molly Hudgens; part one)
Molly Hudgens is a school counselor, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and author of Saving Sycamore; The School Shooting That Never Happened. Molly, also a nationally recognized Safe & Sound Schools speaker, shared her thoughts with us on how school counselors and other staff members can support students returning to school post pandemic who may be suffering due to feelings of isolation, depression, and despair.
It is Monday morning. I have just returned to my office at 7:45 AM from bus duty and am spreading peanut butter on toast, when I hear the familiar chime of the outer office door opening. I turn to see a young man bursting in “Mrs. Hudgens, I’m sorry, but I think I’m having a panic attack.”
Setting the toast down abruptly, I approach him and say “It’s okay, honey. It’s no problem. You sit down, I’m going to get you some water and Cheerios, and we’ll figure out what’s going on.”
An initial assessment of the young man’s outward expression shows a face that is mirroring the anxiety he is feeling inside. As he lies down, his words pour out. “I was having breakfast, and my stomach dropped, and I started getting dizzy, and I felt like I was going to faint, and then I started to cry, and I had to get out of there. I don’t know what happened. That’s never happened to me before. Do you think there’s something bad wrong with me?”
I’m grateful that I know this young man who is now lying prostrate across from me. We have met many times before, have a good rapport, and as he makes himself comfortable, I see the physical signs of his body beginning to relax as his breathing slows. I reach over to feel his forehead which is cool to the touch and ask him to describe in detail what was happening to him when he began to feel poorly.
Did I mention that I am not the school nurse? I am one of two school counselors serving almost seven hundred students in our small, rural, middle school in Tennessee. This may be the first student today who is experiencing anxiety, but he will most certainly not be the only one this week.
As students returned to school fulltime this year following the pandemic, we have become accustomed to them showing up unexpectedly exhibiting these symptoms, emailing us frantically needing to talk to someone, or asking a staff member to message us to be added to our “list” of students to see. Some days our counseling department feels like an emergency room-triage situation on a weekend evening, and more days than not, we head home leaving behind a list longer than we care to admit of students we just could not get to that day.
We have always needed more mental health professionals, but one thing the pandemic has revealed is that when it comes to mental health, we are woefully understaffed world-wide – in every capacity. It may be years before we can determine the effects that isolation, separation from their peers, and distance learning has had on our kids. In the meantime, we must make every effort to meet the needs of our children as best we can with what we have while encouraging college-bound students with a gift for compassion and a desire for service to consider the mental health and counseling fields. We also need to search for scholarship and funding possibilities for those interested in pursuing advanced degrees in mental health, so they are afforded the opportunity to commit to these programs.
The truth is that it does not take a professional to soothe or encourage a child who is struggling. It takes an individual with a loving heart and the desire to listen. No matter the situation or the depth of hurt, anyone seeking counseling is simply looking for a little hope – hope that can be instilled with a reassuring word, an encouraging hug, and sometimes a place to unburden and rest. I have learned that all of these are best served up with a cup of water and a bowl of breakfast cereal. For in extending love by serving others, we not only nourish hope in the body but also in the soul of those we seek to help and…in ourselves.
Guide to K-12 Student Wellbeing
Strategies to Recognize, Document, and Support Students in Distress