Southern Nevadans seek solutions for students’ mental health issues

A new study published by the National Institutes of Mental Health confirms what many parents already know about children’s mental health after pandemic shutdowns.

The Stanford University-based study assessed the mental health of 163 adolescents—ages 13-17—in San Francisco, using self reporting and brain imaging. Half the group was assessed before the pandemic, the other half after the stay-at-home orders.

Researchers found that not only had mental health apparently worsened after March 2020, but that adolescents’ “brain structure” had been affected “reflecting more lasting adversity.”

“Compared to the pre-pandemic group, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression,” the study reads. “Their brains showed thinning of the cortex, which helps execute mental processes like planning and self-control, and reduced volume in the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in accessing memories and regulating responses to fear and stress, respectively.”

Titled “COVID-19 Pandemic Associated With Worse Mental Health and Accelerated Brain Development in Adolescents,” the study further noted that “the post-shutdown group had older brain ages than adolescents assessed before the pandemic,” with “neuroanatomical features” more typical of people who have experienced chronic stress or childhood adversity.

That provides a scientific explanation to parents’ observations over the past three years, says Kali Fox Miller, president of Nevada PTA.

“I think one thing that we can all agree on is that the children … have fundamentally changed since the pandemic. And that change is really caused by stress … and some trauma, as well,” she says.

Miller has been a Nevada PTA board member for nearly four years and has been hearing about families’ concerns related to poor mental health among students—among them school safety, suicides and behavioral problems that disrupt learning. She says one of parents’ “biggest” concerns is child safety.

“We need to do something about physical safety. … A lot of the mental issues are happening because kids are afraid—some are terrified—to go to school,” she says.

Since Clark County schools resumed in person in 2021, behavioral health workers, parents, school officials and unions for educators and support staff have drawn connections between poor mental health and increased violence on campuses. During the years since the pandemic, teachers and administrators have said they have witnessed more student fights, sometimes with staffers injured while trying to intervene.

High-profile incidents of Clark County high school students assaulting teachers led the district to spend more than $39 million ahead of the 2022-23 school year to implement wearable panic buttons, surveillance cameras and other additional security measures at some schools.

In addition to basic safety, academic stress is impacting students’ mental health, says Jessica Shearin, president of the Nevada Association of School Psychologists. At the two North Las Vegas elementary schools where she works, she says, a focus on recovering pandemic learning loss might come at the expense of some students’ mental health.

“It seems like the conversation has immediately been put right back on, ‘How do we close the learning gap?’ … The year of virtual [learning] was OK. It was a Band-Aid. We did our best. But that wasn’t the same type of instruction as kids would have gotten in traditional school,” Shearin says. “I think that’s another big impact that we’re not talking about … There’s pressure on the teacher side to teach standards. There’s [also] pressure on the kids to meet standards that feel so lofty.”


In a measure to help students with behavioral health challenges, the Clark County School District (CCSD) has adopted the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), an “evidence-based model of educating students that uses data and problem-solving to integrate academic, behavior and social-emotional instruction and intervention,” according to CCSD’s website.

“[It’s] really meant to be a framework, so it’s only as successful as its implementation,” Shearin says. “The idea is that every kid gets some sort of core instruction … that’s for both academic skills and also for social-emotional [and] behavioral learning, [where] they’re learning … how to respond when they have a negative emotional experience, how to healthily process emotions.”

Beyond that “core instruction,” kids who need additional help can get increased support, Shearin explains. “There’s going to be the kids who need that individualized, intensive support, either academically or behaviorally. And … that’s where there’s lots of different programs and things available at the district for those different levels.”

She says that in theory, it should work. But staffing is an issue.

According to July data from the Department of Health and Human Services, Nevada’s is so lacking in behavioral health providers, the state would need 35 times its current pool of school social workers to meet the recommended ratio.

The state currently has one school social worker per 8,730 students, while the recommended ratio is one per 250. Furthermore, Nevada would need 3.7 times as many school psychologists, and would need to double its number of school counselors, in order to meet the state’s recommended ratios.

“Staffing makes it really hard to effectively implement the MTSS model. We’re not fully staffed, and everyone’s not on the same routine,” Shearin adds.

To help offset the shortage of behavioral health practitioners, the CCSD Board of Trustees in December approved $3 million in American Rescue Plan funding “to support Dual Enrollment Education Pathway students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education through the School Tuition Assistance Project at Nevada State College,” according to CCSD’s website.

Shearin says the state and school districts need to make career pathways for school behavioral health workers more accessible and affordable.

“The state really needs to invest and promote and encourage higher education, because that’s what is needed to get into these fields. … But in our community, when we have so many students that may be first-generation college students, without the right support that feels impossible. Like … a master’s [degree] might feel out of the question,” she says.

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Mike McNamara

Mike McNamara

A Las Vegas Realtor since 2008. Mike has a wide range of knowledge around all things Las Vegas.

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