By Rebecca J. Barnabi
For Augusta Free Press
WAYNESBORO — The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in some way. Individuals have lost jobs and loved ones.
And America’s youth have lost opportunities for socialization and the support provided in a school setting.
A recent New York Times article reported that 18 students in Las Vegas died by suicide between March and December of 2020.
“I would be concerned, too, if I was in Las Vegas,” said Waynesboro Schools Executive Director of Student Services Dr. Ryan Barber. He added that he heard since the article that more students in Las Vegas have died by suicide.
For the 2018-2019 academic year, Waynesboro and Augusta County Schools implemented STOPit!, funded by the Virginia Municipal League, a smartphone application that allows students to anonymously report suspicious or dangerous behavior.
The program has proven vital during the pandemic.
Barber said one weekend in the fall a student was considering suicide, but a friend reported the situation to the application. Waynesboro police were dispatched to perform a wellness check and the student is fine.
Almost a month ago, however, a Waynesboro student jumped from the I-64 bridge in Lyndhurst and broke his back and neck.
Barber said the school system “wrapped layers of support around that family.”
According to a Virginia Department of Education guidance document, Barber said, youth suicide is the No. 2 cause of death.
“So it’s something that we’ve been spending a pretty significant amount of time looking into,” Barber said of the mental health of Waynesboro Schools students during the pandemic.
He said that when a Waynesboro youth has attempted suicide “we rally around that student and the family.”
The school system has not had too many such situations.
“But one is too many,” Barber said.
Waynesboro Schools knew which students were struggling before the pandemic thanks to psychological sessions with school counselors, however, after the pandemic began the number of sessions lessened because students were not attending school in person.
Barber said that other school systems have also implemented preventative measures, such as STOPit! and school counseling sessions.
“We don’t stand out in that,” he said.
Waynesboro school counselors handle class scheduling but also “are providing counseling support” to families and students in person and via Zoom when necessary.
“We’re doing that regularly every day,” Barber said.
Before the pandemic, the school system had therapeutic day treatment provided by Family Preservation. The organization identified students, families and school personnel “who are needing emotional support” and checked in a couple of times per day with them.
But during the pandemic, FP has not been able to send clinicians.
Sixty Waynesboro Schools staff members were trained last year in youth mental health first-aid by SASMA, which advocates for youth mental health.
“It’s a pretty extensive class that they participate in,” Barber said of the training which allows staff members to identify mental health concerns in students and then know what to do when concerns are identified.
Early in the pandemic, Barber said the school system also took much consideration of its vulnerable learners: special education students and students for whom English is a second language.
But students with social and emotional concerns before the pandemic were also brought in for consideration and observation.
“The social isolation piece — when you’re struggling with suicidal ideation — being alone [is not good],” Barber said.
While Zoom conference calls between students and teachers have provided benefits, the technology has also provided the school system a view into students’ lives at home.
Waynesboro Schools is ready for students to return to in-person learning, Barber said, but “there is so much going on that maybe we don’t know about.”
Barber said that early in the 2020-2021 academic year, a situation happened during a Zoom meeting between a teacher and elementary school students. Classmates could hear and see the mother and father of one student in an argument and throwing items, although the student attempted to mute the video as much as possible.
“Our kids are really, really struggling,” Barber said.
Guidance is provided for staff when they are in a Zoom meeting and witness “concerning behavior,” and the school system has been sensitive to the fact that some students prefer to participate in Zoom meetings with the camera and sound off.
According to a press release from Mental Health America of Augusta, the Greater Augusta region has seen an increase of 250 percent in the last year of mental health screenings as youth reach out for help.
The nonprofit made 550 online mental health screenings available last year through mha-augusta.org.
And the data from the screenings revealed that individuals ages 11 to 24 accounted for 65 percent of the participants; 67 percent were low income and 23 percent were minority.
MHA-A’s screenings also revealed that 56.4 percent of participants were tested for anxiety or depression, with 49 percent testing moderately to severely for anxiety or depression, the press release stated.
“Mental Health America of Augusta is glad to provide resources to the community, especially in these difficult times,” said Bruce Blair, executive director of the Staunton-based non-profit affiliate, in the press release. “It is our goal to help people of all ages who are struggling take the first step in building healthier lives.”
According to a recent New York Times article, the press release stated, youth suicide rates have been on the rise for a decade with suicide being the second-leading cause of death for youth and young adults.
“The first step for someone who is struggling with mental help is to get support,” Blair said in the press release. “Our organization is relieved that we can provide depression, anxiety and youth-specific screenings to help put those who struggle on a path to recovery.”
Barber said he understands the push in Las Vegas for students to return to in-person learning, because Waynesboro Schools also feels that push.
“Because I would anticipate there is going to be a tidal wave of concern of mental health [for students and adults],” Barber said.
Youth and adults have both experienced challenges because of the pandemic.
“We’re hopeful,” Barber said of Waynesboro Schools students and staff receiving COVID-19 vaccines in fall 2021. “Maybe we’ll have some sense of normalcy.”
To take a screening, visit mha-augusta.org/resources/screenings/.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at (800) 273-8255, or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.