Sep 15 2023

Mental Health in K–12 Schools: How Tech Can Help

Virtual counseling, technologies to teach resilience and web filtering tools are helping counselors identify and serve struggling students.

Growing up is hard enough, but kids today live with the added pressure of social media and the aftermath of a global pandemic.

“We are seeing an increase in mental health challenges among our younger students, starting in elementary school. We are also seeing an increase in the number of students exhibiting signs of depression and anxiety compared to past years,” says Priti Avantsa, coordinator of mental health and social work services for Fort Bend Independent School District in Texas.

“Social isolation during COVID-19 triggered many of these challenges because kids are meant to be social and with their peer group, but the pandemic isolated them. Returning to school and to being socially interactive was scary for many, causing kids to suffer from social anxiety.”

At the same time, this generation of students tends to speak more freely about mental health. More resources are available, and conversations happen more frequently. A greater awareness exists around mental health and the importance of resilience than in previous generations.

“There is a heightened awareness for mental health and the issues associated with it,” says Marcie Strahan, executive director of social and emotional learning and culture for Aldine Independent School District in Texas.

Texas has passed policies and legislation over the past several years, even before the pandemic, that increase mental health resources for students and build an infrastructure in public education.

Today’s students also benefit from virtual options for resources and support, lowering financial and transportation barriers.

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Online Therapy for Schools Removes Barriers for Struggling Students

Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine is an example of a virtual therapy and psychiatry resource that many schools use to expand what they can offer students and make help more accessible.

The program is offered in most counties in Texas and is facilitated by the state’s university system. TCHATT relies on short-term psychiatry or therapy, then refers the child to a local community resource for continued support. These local connections can include nearby therapists or a community center.

The ability to refer students to a psychiatrist has been a helpful connection for Avantsa’s team, as well as for the families that might not have the insurance or financial ability to get their children that level of support. Kids can also have sessions from home, so parents don’t have to miss work.

“Before COVID-19, 3 to 5 percent of the student population needed intensive, individual support, but post-COVID, it’s gotten higher than that,” she says. “We never prescribe medication because we’re educators, but if we’re concerned that a student might need to consult with a psychiatrist, we can refer them to TCHATT.”

Avantsa’s team has found success using TCHATT with high schoolers. Though the program does work with younger children, it can be difficult to keep their attention focused on a screen for an extended period. High schoolers are able to leave class, find a safe spot in the counselor’s office, sign in to the session on a personal device, and remain engaged and focused throughout.

The accessibility is a major draw for the schools that use TCHATT or other virtual options for therapy.

“It’s accessibility more than anything else, and because it’s short-term, TCHATT can see more kids. They are meeting more needs,” says Avantsa, whose team covers 83 schools.

Given the sheer volume of students, language barriers can be a problem for therapists and social workers, Avantsa says. Her team relies on Google Translate for quick help (not for conducting sessions) when a parent doesn’t speak English. Families in her district speak over 100 languages and dialects.

Priti Avantsa
Before COVID-19, 3 to 5 percent of the student population needed intensive, individual support, but post-COVID, it’s gotten higher than that.”

Priti Avantsa Coordinator Mental Health/Social Work Services, Fort Bend Independent School District

Heart-Rate Monitoring Teaches Students Better Coping Techniques

Devices like HeartMath Institute’s biofeedback device help children understand how their feelings create physical reactions in their bodies and how to handle these triggers.

Therapists can use the sensor, which uses Bluetooth to connect to a student or staff member’s device, and app when a child feels anxious or stressed. The application displays the child’s heart rate and features breathing exercises in which the screen changes color. This can help students see the physical effects of their feelings and learn coping skills, like taking deep breaths, to build resilience.

“You’re always going to have challenges; everyone does. Building resilience teaches you strategies to help you overcome whatever those challenges might be,” says Strahan.

“Being resilient is knowing how to pick a tool and respond more appropriately,” she adds.

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Web Filtering Tech Instantly Alerts K–12 Mental Health Stakeholders

With the explosion in virtual learning and as more students use school-issued electronic devices, educators are relying on technology that monitors students’ activity. 

GoGuardian’s Beacon technology analyzes online behavior by looking at search histories, Google documents and emails on school-issued devices (not personal phones, tablets or computers). Whether a student is in school or working at home, any online indication of self-harm or other warning signs triggers an alert to mental health officials and administrators.

“People who are considering self-harm or suicide often use the internet to research the means to do so,” says Tracy Clements, K–12 student safety subject matter expert at GoGuardian. “Technology like Beacon is an added tool that can help school staff be more efficient and effective when it comes to identifying students who need mental health support or who might be suffering in silence.”

“Resources like this are especially critical during a time when counselors are stretched thin due to high student caseloads,” she adds.

Strahan’s team has more than 80 schools under its purview. TCHATT has helped make sure all students receive the support they need, but the web filtering technology also acts as a frontline tool. When an alert is issued to Strahan, her team can intervene.

“There are warning signs where students are saying something,” she says. “We take it seriously.”

With the assistance of technology, like web filters and virtual counseling, intervention can happen quickly to get students help when they need it.

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