Summit County kids and the struggle of a pandemic year

Jennifer Pignolet April Helms
Akron Beacon Journal
Pediatric psychologist Dr. Laura Gerak (right) reviews a patient case with mental health therapist Andrew Dodson. They are two members of the team in Akron Children’s Lois and John Orr Family Behavioral Health Center at Akron Children’s Hospital.

Note: This story contains mentions of self-harm and suicide and may be distressing. If you or someone you know is struggling, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text “START” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, or in Ohio, text "4HOPE." You can also access the Lifeline Crisis text chat at www.crisischat.org.

Several days during remote learning, an Akron mom came home from work to find her 13-year-old daughter had spent the day in bed. 

She had logged into her online learning classroom but had no motivation to get up and shower, put on real clothes or even eat lunch. 

It was a scene this mom knew all too well, a haunting callback to just months prior. In August 2019, her daughter, now a Hyre Community Learning Center eighth grader, was hospitalized for harboring thoughts of suicide. The Beacon Journal is not identifying the teen to protect her privacy.

In the weeks leading up to the hospitalization, it was the same script: Not getting out of bed. Not showering. Not eating. On a family vacation to the beach, her daughter wouldn't leave her room. It was a deep depression, brought on by the death of her grandmother, and then subsequently the loss of a dog her grandmother had gotten her as a gift. 

Her daughter had, with therapy and medication, found her way back to stability in the early months of 2020. Then March came, with stay-at-home orders and online learning. 

"I worried that she was going to downward spiral again to what she was before," her mom said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched past the one-year mark, many students are starting to return to school, if they haven't been there in some capacity already. Others are still remote, their families opting to stay home through the end of the school year. 

But many families, whether their kids are in school or not, are also coping with the myriad ways the pandemic has been a wallop to their kids' mental health. 

From isolation to a doomsday-esque news cycle, economic turmoil to the loss of family members, it's reasonable that anyone might have struggled this last year. 

Several Summit County schools counselors have reported seeing increased stress in students this last year, in some cases raising the numbers of referrals for mental health services. As students begin to return to classrooms, teachers are going to be on the lookout for signs of residual trauma, as they help students acclimate to going to school again. 

Erich Merkle, the central office school psychologist for Akron Public Schools, conducts training for teachers on how to spot those struggling students and how to reach out to them. 

Remote learning makes that harder, he said, when teachers can't physically see their students every day. 

Nationally, on average, Merkle said, between 1 in 5 and 1 in 6 children will have some sort of mental health need. 

"As the pandemic really gripped our nation from the spring into the summer, we saw an amplification of that two to three times as much," he said. 

"The longer we were in remote, the more depressing the responses have been," he said. 

Merkle said Akron, a district of nearly 20,000 kids, had one student die by suicide this school year. 

While one is too many, he said, the district and the country have not seen a substantial spike in suicides, despite fear of such early in the pandemic.

All ages requesting supports

Staci Ross, a high school counselor at Nordonia High School, said she has "absolutely" seen families requesting support "across the board."

"All students," Ross said. "No matter what the grade, no matter what the background."

The Nordonia Hills school schedule fluctuated throughout the year, depending on case numbers. The school year started with students going to in-person classes two days per week and taking their courses online for the remaining three days. Currently, all schools have returned to in-person classes five days a week.

Even being in school two days a week was helpful for students' mental health, Ross said. 

Of those whose families chose to have their students take their classes remotely, Ross said she has noticed additional struggles.

"We've been reaching out more to offer support," Ross said. "This year, we were very, very flexible and understanding. There are some students who are online who are doing just fine, but it's the rare student who thrives in that environment and knows they can succeed. Others need additional help."

Ross said she would tell parents to watch for "any deviation in routine or emotions, for anything out of the ordinary."

"They know what their son or daughter's routine looks like," Ross said. "What I would say is if you notice that anything in general has changed in terms of your child's routine or habits, or willingness to reach out to others and connect to others, have that conversation with your son and daughter, or reach out to the school resources."

Having a routine in place will help students and families get through these challenging times, Ross said.

Laura Wieland, a school counselor at Twinsburg Middle School, said the school has seen an increase in anxiety, depression, stress and, in some cases on virtual-only days, "shutting down."

Even when school was in-person, she said, some students had to quarantine for weeks at a time, missing out on school while their peers were back in the classroom and increasing the feelings of isolation.

Counselors set up in-person and virtual meetings with students, especially those in remote learning, Wieland said. 

"These uncertain times have caused many to feel overwhelmed and frustrated," Wieland said. "However, if your child is experiencing unusual sadness, irritability, isn't showing interest in activities they once enjoyed, changes in sleep or eating patterns, severe negative self-talk, feelings of hopelessness, these are significant concerns."

Laura Gerak, a pediatric psychologist with Akron Children's Hospital, said the hospital has not necessarily seen an influx of new patients struggling with mental health, but an exacerbation of issues for those who were already at risk. 

They've seen more anxiety than depression, she said, including expressions of fear about going out in public or returning to school. 

Fully remote learning has been "more stress for those who are really social," Gerak said. "Those on the autism spectrum, those who need structured schedules, the in school and then out of school can be really disruptive. Those who are self-disciplined, they are OK. Those who need the teacher in front of them, those who need the external cues, they struggle."

‘They told me that everything would get better’

The Hyre eighth grader, who loves painting and plays the violin, didn't realize how much she needed the interaction with other kids, or even other adults.

School wasn't always a happy place for her, she said. But she's also a rare teen who hates texting and talking on the phone. So when she was isolated to her house, her interactions became quite limited. 

"Being stuck in one house, not being forced to see people or communicate took a really big toll on me because I’m stuck in this house all the time," she said. 

"It got so difficult to the point I didn't care as much anymore," she said. She would start crying for seemingly no reason and couldn't stop. She went from straight-A's to failing one class and earning a D in another. 

A Hyre Middle School student with a few of her paintings Friday, March 19, 2021 in Akron, Ohio.

As hard as remote learning had become, the idea of going back to school stressed her out. Her parents gave her and her brother, an Ellet sophomore who had loved online learning and thrived in it, the choice of whether to go back to school in person. They both chose to return. 

Her first day back at Hyre, though, she was anxious. 

"It's still new," she said. "It's just still not the normal."

She had lost touch with some friends, she said, and assumed they wouldn't be kind to her when they saw each other again. That turned out not to be the case. 

"It was like nothing ever happened," she said. "It was like we'd had a really long summer and we just got back from it."

For any other kids who might be struggling, "I'd tell them the same thing that everybody told me when I was struggling horribly, and didn’t believe it until it happened," she said. 

"They told me that everything would get better, and that there's people there for you."

Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com. Reporter April Helms can be reached at ahelms@thebeaconjournal.com.