Plus, here's what educators can do to make the transition back to school easier for students.

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The pandemic has posed a number of unique mental health challenges for students. In addition to dealing with the general anxiety about potentially contracting coronavirus (COVID-19), the grief of lost loved ones, and depression surrounding canceled opportunities, many students also missed out on a primary form of socialization when schools transitioned to virtual learning last year. Now, even as many schools transition back to in-person classes this fall, a number of mental health challenges will remain—and many experts are concerned about a mental health crisis surge among young people.

Caroline Fenkel, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and chief clinical officer of Charlie Health, says the current "rise in rates of depression and anxiety among teens and young adults is alarming." An August 2021 study from the University of Calgary, which pooled data from 29 studies across the world, found that the rates of child and adolescent depression and anxiety were up 25.2% and 20.2%, respectively—doubling pre-pandemic rates. Dr. Fenkel explains that the "collective trauma of COVID-19 has been particularly hard on young people because of the ways trauma and isolation disrupt emotional, mental, and behavioral development." And the changes in school routines have only added to that disruption.

"We've seen how virtual school has been really hard on kids––on their learning outcomes, engagement, attention, and even their curiosity or desire to learn at all," Dr. Fenkel says. Public K-12 teachers have made similar observations, with more than half saying that the pandemic has resulted in a "significant" learning loss for students, both academically and from a social-emotional standpoint, according to a report by Horace Mann Educators Corporation. "Plus, more time on social media as a way to zone out or try to connect with others has been shown to lead to higher rates of depressive symptoms and low self-esteem," Dr. Fenkel adds.

And although some states (Kentucky and Maryland, for example) have enacted mental health policies to support students, an analysis by the advocacy group Mental Health America stated "the vast majority of states lack comprehensive policies," and more action is needed to effectively address youth mental health needs in schools. 

With all the compounding challenges that students are facing right now, it's important that back-to-school season isn't approached with a "business as usual" mindset, but instead, with careful considerations about mental health. Below, learn more about students' rights to mental health accommodations, the ways educators can make the transition back to school easier, and how students can ask for the support they need.

What rights do students have to mental health accommodations?

When it comes to mental health accommodations, there are federal laws in place intended to protect students' rights and ensure equal opportunity to education. The primary laws regarding this are The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While specific rules and regulations can vary from school to school, federal disability law protects students who meet the criteria for having a disability. The ADA's definition for an individual with a disability includes both physical and mental qualities "that substantially limits one or more major life activities." This means that mental health conditions (including depression, anxiety, or any other mental health illnesses that limit a student's ability to participate) are covered by disability rights law and entitle students to "reasonable accommodations" to help them in school.

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Depending on a student's specific needs, these accommodations might include additional time to complete exams, a private room to take exams, modified deadlines, reduced workloads, or more. However, according to the Jed Foundation's report, (Student Mental Health and the Law: A Resource for Institutions of Higher Education), the school is only obligated to provide accommodations if a student has disclosed a disability.

Whether students meet specific disability criteria or not, though, everyone deserves access to an education that takes mental health into account. So, keep reading for ways that both educators and students can advocate for better mental health support while in school.

How can students advocate for their own mental health and ask for accommodations?

No matter your specific diagnosis or concerns, there are ways that you, as a student, can advocate for your own mental health to improve your educational experience.

Don't ignore your own red flags.

Confronting your own mental health needs never feels convenient, but Leigh McInnis, licensed professional counselor and executive director of Newport Healthcare in Virginia, says it's important to do so as soon as possible. "I've worked with lots of students who have postponed addressing their mental health needs until they started college or until they got a job and then, not only does life get in the way, but also life tends to get harder," she explains. So, as soon as you notice red flags of behavioral changes (like social isolation, lashing out at people, or crying for no reason), address them right away, McInnis suggests.

Confide in a trusted adult.

As stated above, schools aren't obligated (by federal law) to provide mental health accommodations if they aren't aware of a student's disability. So, it's important to connect with a trusted educator, counselor, or administrator to let them know that you are struggling and need mental health support.

Communicate your needs.

Once you've found someone that you trust to talk with, communicate with them about what accommodations you need to perform better in school. These accommodations could include any of the common requests, like more time on tests and extended deadlines, or something more personalized to your needs. "I would say, if you have an idea about what could be beneficial to you, it doesn't ever hurt to ask," McInnis says.

She also recommends letting teachers know about some of your behavioral tendencies if you feel comfortable doing so, to help them better understand you and your needs. For example, if you're someone who needs to take breaks during classes, you could tell them, "When I need to take space or when I get overwhelmed, I may ask to use the bathroom and that's not me avoiding class—that's me taking a few minutes to myself to collect my thoughts and take a deep breath."

Follow a mental health professional's guidance.

If you are someone who already takes advantage of professional mental health care, Dr. Fenkel emphasizes the importance of continuing to follow the support prescribed to you.

"It's incredibly important that whatever medication or other therapies prescribed by a healthcare provider are taken and adhered to exactly as prescribed," she says. "These are all preventative ways to avoid a higher acuity mental health crisis." Even when those practices seem mundane or stagnant, "mental health professionals are there to keep you on track toward sustainable recovery," she adds.

Seek out a Disability Services Coordinator.

If your teachers or administrators aren't taking your requests for mental health accommodations seriously, you have the right to advocate for yourself. Almost every postsecondary school is required to have a dedicated employee—often called the Section 504 Coordinator, ADA Coordinator, or Disability Services Coordinator—whose job is to ensure the school's compliance with disability laws. You can contact this person for information about the rights you're entitled to and help to address your concerns.

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How can educators advocate for students' mental health needs?

Dr. Fenkel says it's important that school administrations and educators prepare for both the "learning and behavioral backslide" that kids have made in the past year. "Maintaining a sense of grace and patience [with students] is vital," she says. "Remember, this pandemic has been harder on kids than most. Their frustration, lack of engagement, depression, anxiety—you name it—isn't their fault."

Below are some ways educators and administrators can advocate for students' mental health needs.

Share resources.

Both McInnis and Dr. Fenkel emphasize the importance of making mental health resources available to students. McInnis also emphasizes how these resources—whether that includes information for counselors or online tools—are important to share with all students.

McInnis explains that while some students may be presenting more clear signs of struggling with mental health, others may not have evident warning signs. "So, to be able to provide a list of resources to all students would be really beneficial," she says.

Make one-on-one connections.

Not only should schools provide an environment in which resources are available to students, Dr. Fenkel says, "but more importantly, [they should provide] an environment in which students feel safe and comfortable accessing those resources." One way to do this is to make personal connections with students.

While some educators may have a large number of students on their roster, McInnis says it can be highly beneficial for students when educators intentionally reach out and make a one-to-one connection. It provides "students that opportunity to ask for support without being in front of all of their peers," she explains.

Ease into the coursework.

As Dr. Fenkel mentions above, students will be playing catch up this year, so any grace and patience that educators can provide will be helpful. "Provide a space for students to ease into the school process instead of heavily creating a lot of anxiety at the beginning with tests or assignments immediately," McInnis suggests. She also recommends that educators consider easing into the social aspect of classwork, "slowly integrating more social learning, as opposed to immediately requesting that kids engage in social dialogue or group work." Students who are dealing with social anxiety may need to ease into the transition back to school.

If you're a student looking for more support throughout the school year, look to these affordable mental health care options and remember that mental health is always worth prioritizing.