During pandemic, Ohio school district saw mental health hospitalizations surge

By: - March 3, 2021 12:50 am

Hillard Darby High School. Photo from Google Maps.

Eighty-four students at Hilliard City Schools have been hospitalized for mental health issues during the pandemic, officials say, an estimated fourfold increase over the average year.

The district, home to about 16,000 students, has also seen 660 students contract COVID-19, seven of whom were hospitalized with the new disease, according to state and local records.

The increase in mental health emergencies underscores the stakes of a difficult consideration for school administrators and parents: how to weigh the knowns and unknowns of a deadly pandemic that principally spreads through person-to-person contact against the collateral damage of keeping children out from school and isolated.

“It’s a fine balance,” said Mike Abraham, director of student well-being for the district.

“It’s just so lopsided right now with the number of kids that are struggling with mental health and the number of kids that have been hospitalized for covid. It just makes sense to get some of them back in school to relieve some of that anxiety.”

To accelerate students’ return to the classroom, Gov. Mike DeWine opted to prioritize teachers in the COVID-19 vaccination queue. In four weeks, 200,000 Ohio teachers were inoculated, he said at a press conference Monday.

In January, about 50% of public-school students were not offered any in-person learning. Today, it’s less than 10%. Eight school districts are not offering any in-person learning yet, though DeWine said all but one will return in the next few weeks.

At Hilliard, however, the district experienced the rush of mental health care demand despite offering a hybrid learning model since September.

On March 15, Hilliard Schools is switching to an “All-In Learning Mode.” This entails full time, in-person learning, with masks, 6’ social distancing “when possible,” two students per bus seat, and a laundry list of similar tinkering.

The district’s shift comes after guidance from the CDC released last week states schools can reopen safely, even without vaccinated teachers, so long as they heed infection control guidance.

Abraham said schoolchildren today were already more anxious than most before the pandemic. Factor in social isolation; the loss of rites-of-passage like crowded football fields or prom; the disconcerting psychological effects of being surrounded by people in masks; and more, and it’s a lot for kids to navigate.

It’s a lot for adults, himself included, Abraham said.

“This is a very, very social generation,” he said. “When you’re telling them you cannot get together with your friends, that’s pretty significant for these kids.”

Abraham said he would assume this problem is not unique to Hilliard.

The Ohio Department of Education, however, said it didn’t track data on increases in mental health care visits from Ohio students, according to a spokeswoman.

The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services also does not track student mental health data, according to department spokesman Eric Wandersleben.

However, he said anecdotally, county-level mental health boards have noted an increase in demand for mental health and addiction support in the general population, but no final data are available.

While not age-specific, the department launched a phone line to support Ohioans grappling with loneliness, fear, anxiety, substance abuse, and other pandemic-related issues. Counselors have fielded more than 5,000 calls, he said.

November research from the CDC found that compared with 2019 data, the proportion of mental health–related visits to the emergency department for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively.

The news about Hilliard’s spike in mental health care needs made it to the Statehouse when Rep. Shane Wilikin, R-Hillsboro, asked a state health official if he was aware of the finding.

Wilikin, who like many Republican lawmakers refuses to wear a mask, asked about Hilliard during review of House Bill 90, which would automatically strike down all public health orders or public health emergencies after 30 days unless state lawmakers allow the extension.

In his interview, Abraham made clear he wasn’t advocating to end any mitigation efforts, including mask mandates, social distancing, etc.

He emphasized that no protocol will or should change. But case counts are dropping, vaccinations (for adults) are looming, and now is the time to start mitigating some of the non-coronavirus damage the pandemic has brought.

“I don’t agree that we need to lift all covid restrictions,” he said. “I think we need to follow the science. It’s not just kids, there are adults, and we need to keep everybody safe. And what can we do, but at the same time, keep kids safe.”

An earlier version of this report misidentified Mike Abraham. 

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Jake Zuckerman
Jake Zuckerman

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.

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