The Impact of Virtual Learning on Families

Here’s the latest from Practicing Mental Illness:

Lasts week’s release of the Centers for Disease Control’s ominously named Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report verified what many of us already know: Continued school closures are destroying many children’s mental health. The report also gave insight into the emotional effects suffered by parents of children who have been forced out of classrooms and into virtual learning in response to the Covid 19 pandemic.

The study surveyed parents of 5 – 12 year-olds currently enrolled in in-person learning, virtual learning, or a combination of the two. 45.7% of parents reported their children were engaged in all virtual learning. You can read the report here.  

The negative impact on mental health found in children engaged in virtual learning is aggravated by less time spent with friends, less time spent exercising, and less time spent outside than children who are in school full time. Fully 24.9% of kids in virtual learning are impacted by mental or emotional distress. Cruelly, most of the mental health services provided to children are delivered through schools, and those services are not available to students whose schools are all virtual.

The impact on well-being is even more profound for the children’s parents. 42.7% of parents whose children are all virtual have lost their jobs, and 26.6% report job stability concerns. 21.6% are having trouble sleeping, and 13.5% encounter daily childcare challenges.

Most damning to advocates of continued virtual learning is that more than half (54%) of the parents with kids trying to learn at home report mental or emotional distress.

It boggles my mind that people still resist putting students back in school full-time immediately. It’s a testament to the second class status of mental health and our inability to grasp the impact and intransigence of mental health challenges that will far outlast the virus. Still, local government, school districts and teachers’ unions ignore the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC to fully reopen schools.

What is perhaps most troubling about this CDC research is that the data was collected from October 8 to November 13, 2020. It has been four months since then, so one can only assume that the impact on mental health of virtual learning is even greater. Careful study of the data reveals that hybrid learning can also have profound negative mental health consequences for students and parents, so families in districts that have only partially reopened since the fall still suffer.

My own daughter’s school is still all virtual, and our family has certainly felt the difficulties reported by the families in the CDC report. I can only hope that as plans are made for reopening consideration is given to the increased need that many are surely going to have for mental health services.

I know I’ve written about this before, and I know I sound shrill. I know the current coronavirus pandemic is dangerous and we must act to defeat it. I fear, however, that we face an even greater pandemic of mental illness as a result of how we have mishandled the arbitrary shutdowns of 2020 and 2021. We can take steps to try to prevent that. We can’t vaccinate against mental and emotional distress, but we can reopen the schools now.

Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis

Please indulge me as I take a moment to plug my book. Anxiety is the most common disorder of mental health distress that people are encountering right now. On the one hand the vaccination rollout is going well. On the other cases of Covid 19 are spiking again. Our lives are still full of uncertainty. This uncertainty drives anxiety. My book lays out effective strategies to predict, prevent and manage anxiety before it results in worsening mental and physical health. Please, pick up a copy of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. You can find it here, or wherever books are sold.

Meditation

One of the reasons I’m not a self-help superstar as I advocate for and teach meditation is because I present a realistic picture of what meditation can, and can’t, do for you. I take issue with people who sell mindfulness as a happy, happy panacea for all that ills you. It’s not, and sometimes it’s even unpleasant. However, I know meditation can be a great adjunct therapy for those dealing with mental illness. 

Yet, every once in a while, someone comes along who trashes meditation and portrays it as dangerous. I have to take issue with them, too. An article in the current issue of Harper’s tells a horrifying story of a young woman who went on a meditation retreat, decompensated, and killed herself. Please read it and realize that she, who had never meditated before, jumped into a ten day intensive meditation retreat. I’ve been on that kind of retreat and I’ve had challenges, too. But that’s not the meditation I, or most people who teach mindfulness, advocate for.

Meditation for 20 – 30 minutes a day is very different from a ten day intensive. Yes, meditation is about experiencing the present moment, so if you’re having a bad day that meditation is likely to be unpleasant, at least for the first few minutes. Possibly through the entire session. I also advise people who are having dangerous ruminations to avoid meditation at all unless they are very experienced with it. Learn it slowly during a stable period.

My advice to anyone considering meditation as a therapy for mental illness is to ease into it with realistic expectations. Don’t listen to the happy, happy crowd, and don’t jump into a long retreat. Instead, try this: