Counselors reach out to anxious students, stressed parents

Pandemic, social lockdown exacerbate mental-health issues

In pre-pandemic times, Cedar Springs student services director Stacie Voskuil high-fived students to start the school day

Editor’s note: The second in a two-part series on how schools and mental-health professionals are helping students and families struggling through the coronavirus shutdown.

In the first weeks of the statewide stay-at-home order, as Forest Hills social worker Stephanie Thornton was getting parents acclimated to technology needed to connect in new ways, she found connecting with students and parents at all was challenging.

“Everyone is so stressed, pulled in so many directions,” Thornton said then. “Some feedback we have gotten from parents is that getting so much communication from school is overwhelming, that they are trying to prioritize who to respond to.”

Thornton said that feedback was heard “loud and clear.” Administrators and teachers have since scaled back communications so families don’t feel as overwhelmed. 

From anxious students to stressed parents, school mental-health workers like her are addressing the social and emotional problems exacerbated by the coronavirus shutdown. For some counselors, that comes on top of helping students line up fall courses and college admissions. 

School News Network checked in with a few district officials to see how they’re reaching out to students and families, and what they’re finding. 

Forest Hills Public Schools 

Mattie De Boe

Thornton, who works with students and families at Forest Hills Eastern middle and high schools, and counselor liaison Mattie DeBoe put together a list of resources on the district’s website. It includes not only district-specific resources, but also Grand Rapids-area resources and agencies, strategies for self-care, mindfulness links and tips on how to be safe online. 

Thornton said she’s been able to connect with pretty much every student she has needed to, now that Continuity of Learning Plans have begun. Offering to connect with students and families in the way they prefer to respond has been a good first step, she said. Some like the face-to-face of online virtual meetings, she said, while others prefer email or sharing a journal.

“Giving them control over how we do it is important, because there is so little they actually have control over right now,” Thornton said.

Overall, she said, students have settled in and are now aware of available support. Those who are still struggling with managing the workload, dealing with distractions at home and staying on task get extra attention. 

‘For some kids it’s really affected their mental health, their sense of ‘is there an end in sight?’’

– Stephanie Thornton, Forest Hills social worker
Stephanie Thornton

And while anxiety has decreased for some students, for others it has ramped up as the weeks at home have added up.

“For some kids it’s really affected their mental health, their sense of ‘is there an end in sight?’ They’re hearing questions about (school returning) in the fall. High schoolers are social beings for the most part. To not have that time with peers … is really hard on their emotional status.”

And she understands the challenges extend to entire families.

Thornton said she heard from one couple that they needed to focus in the first weeks at home on ramping up doing their jobs remotely. “They were feeling so guilty because they had been getting so much enrichment from school (for their children), they just couldn’t do it all. This is a challenge for parents and for educators.

“I do think parents are still struggling to balance, especially those who are working from home and have younger kids.”

Part 1: Helping students struggling with isolation-induced anxiety and other mental health issues

Mattie De Boe and two other mental health liaisons are employees of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services contracted by the district to work with K-12 building counselors, social workers and principals. The majority of their work is to aid students and families who have needs that go beyond what can be provided in the building. 

“Kent County is very resource-rich, but it can also be scary to reach out for the first time,” De Boe said. “We can walk alongside them to help them get connected to supports they need.” 

With a few more weeks under everyone’s belts, De Boe said, “many (students) are working to find a new routine and are settling into learning from home.” Still, she added, “I’d say there is still an overall feeling that stress is high for both students and parents.”

That, of course, goes for teachers too.

“With increased stress, that will affect overall emotional-social well-being. The challenge for us all is, how do we manage that stress at baseline in order to function in these other areas?”

Wade Zeilenga

Byron Center Public Schools

Students normally visit Byron Center High School guidance counselor Wade Zeilenga’s office during the last couple months of school to schedule the next fall’s courses. He helps them align the classes they need with their goals.

But he and fellow counselors Carissa Chapman and Jessica Koziara, who work with nearly 400 students each, are also counselors in the traditional sense, offering mental health support for social and emotional well-being and relationships. 

“One way we describe it is we want to help students with learning to learn, learning to live and learning for life,” Zeilenga explained.

That’s been challenging since schools closed. The counselors had the majority of scheduling for next fall complete but were handling the rest remotely, mostly by email and phone. For many students, it’s a straightforward matter of scheduling classes, but for others, the communication is much deeper.

“We are doing our best to plug into kids with messages: ‘How are you doing?’” Zeilenga said, adding he makes extra effort to connect with “more vulnerable” students at particular risk of mental health issues. Principal Scott Joseph also reaches out to students individually and connects the counselors with any who are showing distress.

‘We want to help students with learning to learn, learning to live and learning for life.’

– Wade Zeilenga, Byron Center guidance counselor

Zeilenga said he’s seen families struggling with tensions exacerbated due to isolation and having everyone under the same roof for prolonged periods. School outreach can help, but he also refers them to outside agencies and resources. 

He’s had a hard time connecting with some students who struggle with technology access, though the district is working to ensure all students have devices and Wi-Fi connection. Some students with insecure home environments still aren’t always able to connect, he said.

Still, Zeilenga hopes no one is overlooked. He worries about the students who stay “under the radar, the wallflowers that don’t stick out much. Those are the ones I’m nervous about.” 

Stacie Voskuil

Cedar Springs Public Schools 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified, so has the anxiety level of many district students. Stacie Voskuil, director of special education and student services, gave an example provided by one of her counselors. 

The student, though academically “capable,” was not doing school work and at risk of not graduating, the counselor said. The student was “stuck/frozen in negative thoughts and feelings and unable to activate a productive plan,” despite teachers laying out such a plan. The student declined counseling, so the counselor sent the parent a video suggesting ways the student could get unstuck – “all easier said than done,” the counselor noted.

Voskuil leads a mental health team of 15 staff, including psychologists, school social workers, child life interventionists, counselors, a child life specialist and behavior specialist. She said this case illustrates how challenging it can be for students to overcome negative emotions with positive thinking.  

‘It starts with how we treat each other.’

– Stacie Voskuil, Cedar Springs student services director

“Dealing with mental disorders is extremely emotional,” Voskuil said by email. “It’s not that the person doesn’t care. In some cases, they care too much. Deciding to face your fears, being willing to feel the anxiety, and move towards the fear, sit with/tolerate the awful feeling, while changing your ‘rules,’ is ALL emotional.”

Mental health is a high priority in Voskuil’s district. Its website, “Cedar Springs Mental Health Matters,” offers practical tips such as How to Talk About What’s Happening with Children, Managing Anxiety and ways to Stay Connected with friends, family and the community.    

From food distribution to technology to instructional materials, Voskuil said they are doing everything possible to support and create a sense of structure during this time with the collaboration of many community agencies.

“It starts with how we treat each other,” Voskuil said. “If we take care of each other and are role models in the way we work together, we show our students that no matter what external struggles we are facing, we will be OK if we work together.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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