Expert weighs in on lasting mental health damage caused by the pandemic, returning to school


CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — There’s still a lot of unknowns when it comes to COVID-19, including what the pandemic has done to our mental health.

“We really haven’t been through a global pandemic such as this one in about 100 years, and so as a result, we really don’t have much research around the longer-term effects,” explains Dr. Dolores Cimini, Director of the UAlbany Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research.

The New York Department of Health and Education Department guidance on school reopening puts a heavy emphasis social and emotional health. The guide mandates helping students transition back into school, but with new health and safety restrictions.

Dr. Cimini says what we do know about how students feel after being ripped from school to suddenly start online learning isn’t good.

“It’s really been connected to more feelings of loneliness, feelings of isolation, and for many, feeling trapped without a way to let loose,” she explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton. “Many students may still have a fear or reaction to what may happen going back to school.”

She adds even students who are excited to see their friends and familiar places will need help adjusting.

“Because children and adolescents have been isolated for so long in the home environment, one might expect that they may experience what’s called a ‘rebound effect’,” Dr. Cimini explains.

She describes a rebound as an emotional high that often times masks more negative emotions. She also says the intensified desire for closeness after a long time in isolation may make things difficult for teachers and administrators enforcing social distancing.

“We are an educational institution. Now we are educating on safety protocols as much as we are math and English. So that’s just one additional thing that we’re going to have to do, but this is what our people do for a living,” responds Mechanicville City School District, Superintendent Bruce Potter.

The state guidance warns school districts to prepare resources for vulnerable students and look for possible outbursts of negative behavior. Superintendent Potter says his area will be one of only five across the nation to pilot the University of Michigan’s Positivity Project.

“It will include a 15 minute lesson every day based on 24 character traits, but also there will be dedicated classes for students entering the 6th grade and for juniors and seniors on positive psychology,” he says.

“[It’s about] building community and building relationships, and then how do you go about repairing harm when those relationships have been fractured. So it’s purposeful, it’s thoughtful, it’s deliberate, so everyone feel safe,” he goes on to say.

He and North Colonie Central School District Superintendent Joseph Corr also have plans to fulfill the other state mandate, providing resources for their teachers and staff.

“The overall experience of the pandemic has been stressful and hard for everyone. Some of our teachers and staff may have experienced an illness in the family, illness themselves, perhaps they were affected by the economic downturn of this entire experience, so it’s very traumatic in that way. As a community, we have to look after all our community members, and that includes our staff,” says Corr.

Dr. Cimini suggests going a step even further and offering resources to anxious parents as well.

“Parents may be very, very fearful about whether their children, by being sent back to school, are going to be contracting COVID-19 and may get sick as a result,” she says. “They may not know what the reopening plans will look like or how they’ll work. That can also bring anxiety.”

Mechanicville and North Colonie have surveys out so parents can weigh in on whether they want their kids back in school or not. There will also be public meetings available in person and online to discuss each district’s reopening plan.

Mechanicville will hold its community meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, July 27. North Colonie’s meeting will be Thursday at 7 p.m.

If you or a loved one are experiencing mental stress or are concerned for your mental health, contact the New York State emotional support helpline at 1-844-863-9314. Resources can also be found on the Office of Mental Health website.

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