Mental health advocates support return of full-time classroom instruction

By Dallas Woodhouse

Raleigh, NC – Mental health experts who are also parents with students in Wake County Public Schools are sounding an alarm over a rising mental health crisis due to a lack of full-time classroom instruction.

“Stop hiding behind fear and listening to the politically based [N.C. Association of Educators],” said mental health specialist Renee Avis, referring to the state teachers’ union. “Start listening to science and the experts who all say our children need to be in school. It is the safest and best place for them to be.”

Avis and other health experts are joining parent-driven efforts to prompt Gov. Roy Cooper and Wake County Schools, North Carolina’s largest public system, to return to full-time daily in-person instruction.

Senate Bill 37, which is expected to become law despite Cooper’s objections, would require a return to in-person instruction but would mandate it only on a part-time basis except for special-needs students.

In advocating for an immediate return to full-time in-person instruction the attorney for the Wake parents delivered a message to Cooper. “Compelled isolation of our public-school students produces unhealthy stress and strain on our students.”  wrote Anthony Biller.

Wake County parent Jennifer Birch, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and registered play therapist, wrote that she is seeing dozens of Wake County students from more than 15 elementary, middle, and high schools.

“Each child is struggling due to the lack of in-person instruction and peer engagement,” according to Birch.

“Anxiety and depressive symptoms have dramatically increased in teens. My clients are experiencing difficulty getting out of bed, lack of motivation to complete schoolwork, isolation from peers, decreased self-esteem, increased obsessive-compulsive tendencies, emotional dysregulation, increased manipulative behaviors of lying and stealing, and an increase in self-harming behaviors,” wrote Birch, who manages Birch Therapy in Raleigh. “Many teens who were successful last year are now failing at least one core class.”

As reported by Axios, across the nation hospitals have seen a significant increase in mental health emergencies among children, and federal officials have acknowledged that prolonged school closures have deprived students of critical services and important human contact.

“The isolation we need to doto save lives is hitting them right at their developmental core,” said Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Avis, who specializes in eating disorders, says keeping students out of the classroom on a full-time basis has serious consequences.

“Prior to the pandemic, I would get on average one, two new clients every two to three weeks. In the last two weeks I have taken on six new clients. I have been getting phone calls weekly from parents asking me if I am taking on new patients,” wrote Avis.