Erin Chan Ding: Barrington 220 Board of Education Mental Health Survey
NAMIBA: Almost a year into the pandemic, mental health is a simmering crisis for many of our schoolchildren, partly hidden by isolation but increasingly evident in the distress of parents, the worries of counselors and early research.
As a member of the school board how would you address this crisis?
Erin Chan Ding: As vaccinations increase and Covid-19 case numbers fall, and as we enter a post-pandemic reality, it is critical that we assess and address the mental, emotional and relational health of our students in District 220.
There’s been so much focus on academic learning loss, and while I believe learning loss is real and that gaps between students in our district need to be bridged through supplemental and accessible instruction, I think it would be incumbent on me, if elected to the Barrington 220 Board of Education, to urge our superintendent and administration to take intentional, concrete steps to come alongside our students and parents to ensure they’re being connected to the counselors and resources they need.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, whose work I am grateful for, cites a 2018 study by Daniel Whitney, PhD, showing that one in six youth ages 6 to 17 experience a mental health disorder every year. Even more, the isolation, uncertainty and turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic has almost certainly augmented incidents of anxiety and depression among our kids.
As part of my volunteer work, I serve on the Northwestern University Alumni Admissions Council, and I spent part of my winter interviewing high school seniors who applied for admission to Northwestern University, my alma mater. During those interviews, one in four high school students acknowledged to me that they suffered anxiety and depression during the pandemic, and that for the first time in their lives, they reached out for help. Fortunately, the students who told me their stories received the help they needed and were embraced by the teachers and mentors in their lives.
I am concerned, however, for kids whose mental health has suffered and don’t even know they may benefit from help and counseling services. This is why I think it’s necessary, as our district returns to full-time, in-person learning over the next couple of weeks, for our district’s counselors and teachers to have conversations with every single student to gauge how they’re doing mentally and emotionally.
Some students may have adjusted just fine to the oscillations of the pandemic, but others have experienced consequential disruptions to their mental health or have even lost someone they loved to Covid-19, causing serious emotional trauma. According to the American Psychological Association, universal screening of kids through questionnaires and conversations can aid in identifying at-risk students. In addition, our teachers, coaches and school staff should receive training from counselors and mental health professionals in order to spot concerning student behaviors so they can come alongside those students to connect them with additional mental health services.
We also have phenomenal local organizations, such as Barrington Youth & Family Services, BStrong Together and the Healthier Barrington Coalition. These organizations assist struggling kids and also invite local families into conversations on how to build emotionally resilient and adaptable students. We need to maintain and strengthen the partnerships the school district has with these invaluable nonprofits.
As school board members, we should also review student use of our current district resources around mental health, including our social emotional resources, text-a-tip, and the META app, which connects kids to school counselors. We need to ensure students and families know how to access these resources, and if the resources are being under-utilized, we should find out why and explore if there are more effective ways to assist students in navigating their mental and emotional health.
Finally, just as we have formed a district equity team around race, I think we need to consider a districtwide team composed of school board members, teachers, staff, parents, students and community organizations that advises and makes policy recommendations to the administration, superintendent and the board around our most vulnerable students, including neurodivergent kids and teens who have IEPs, or individualized education plans, and 504s. Each child has different life experiences, and as school board members, we need to demonstrate our willingness to bend and flex to ensure the mental health of each student in every part of our district.
Learn more by visiting Erin Chan Ding’s website, or following on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. More information about the election can be found on District 220’s website. For more mental health resources, subscribe to NAMI Barrington Area’s newsletter. Erin Chan Ding has been endorsed by the Daily Herald.