Q&A: McFarland school social worker discusses how mental health services have changed as a result of pandemic

November 4, 2020 /

With the COVID-19 pandemic still affecting communities across the nation, many people — especially young people — are experiencing increased mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of more than 5,400 American young adults age 18 and older revealed more than 60 percent reported feeling more anxious as a result of the pandemic. The results – three times as high as the same time in 2019 – also include a reported increase in suicidal thoughts and substance use.

More than 40 percent of those responding to the study reported at least one adverse behavioral health reaction to the pandemic, the CDC says. This includes anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost 11 percent had experienced suicidal thoughts in the previous month, a group that was disproportionately male and people of color.

COVID-19 has especially affected young adults ages 18 to 24, a quarter of whom reported starting or increasing their use of alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs as a way to cope.

To get a better idea of how local youth are coping with the pandemic, Kern Sol News reached out to Anastasia Rivera, the sole social worker for the McFarland Unified School District. She works in the district to address mental health, social, and emotional problems with children and their families. She also acts as a consultant for staff to help them recognize signs of mental health problems and educate them on coping strategies to help their students.  

This interview has been edited for clarity and cut for length.

Q: What has been your experience with the COVID-19 pandemic as a social worker at the McFarland Unified School District?

A: It’s been a very new situation. From experience, I am noticing there is an increase in anxiety. It is at an all time high. At first, due to a lot of uncertainty with the virus and people worrying about their family and their health, loss of job and incomes. I was seeing a lot of that initially. Then it went to a lot of depression due to the isolation part. With students that are disconnected with their friends and even their family members, you’re going to start to see a lot of problems with feelings of sadness and loneliness. It’s the most common. I get the most referrals mainly for anxiety or sadness. 

Q: What new challenges has the COVID-19 pandemic brought for you as a social worker?

A: The most challenging thing now is, as a school social worker, prior to the pandemic, I was able to pull students out of class and meet with them one-on-one, even at home as well. Due to the guidelines and school policy now, the primary way I do it now is virtually. I’m able to meet kids through Zoom and Google Hangouts. It’s a lot more challenging due to confidentiality; who’s in the room, are any children or parents listening? That poses a challenge. For now, it’s working hit or miss. Some days it works great, other days it works terribly. 

Q: Do you feel like your ability to reach those you talk to personally has been hurt because you need to do your sessions virtually?

A: No one has voiced that as a concern to me, but I am sure that is a thing. People have anxiety looking at themselves with online schooling. A lot of students don’t want to see themselves with their cameras on. That poses a challenge to me because I can’t tell who’s in the room with them if their camera is off.

Q: Do you have any general advice for individuals struggling with issues like anxiety or depression while isolating at home?

A: The easiest way to cope with something like that is to change your routine. A lot of us got into really bad habits, such as sleeping a lot more, snacking a lot more, or watching TV and playing video games. So I think one of the simplest ways to help with this is to change your routine. Instead of doing your Zoom calls in bed, find a desk area or dining table. Simple things can help a lot with this. Instead of getting out of bed and going right to class, take a shower or maybe do your makeup. Simple routine changes. Maybe if you’re one who is feeling lonely, the hardest thing to do is to reach out to a friend, like sending a text or calling them. I speak with students who don’t do this very often. You need to break that rut and make a new routine. It may feel uncomfortable, but it can help.

Reach out for help. Don’t go through feeling like that alone. Don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you. Don’t feel like no one knows what you’re really feeling. I really recommend reaching out with someone you trust who is going to be honest and sympathetic with you. Teacher, social worker, a counselor, a parent. Don’t just sit there and wait for it to go away.

Q: How do you view the resources that are available for mental health issues? 

A: Resources for the community and families have remained the same. It can be a hoop to jump through sometimes, again, with the lack of in-person options. I would say for the most part, places are going to start going back to normal, with wearing a mask, like at a doctor or health clinic. Maybe the hardest part is that people are not aware of the resources.

Q: Has your workload changed due to the pandemic?

A: The workload for me is about the same. I am the only district social worker in McFarland for the entire school district. We have a great team of academic counselors and even Student Affairs Specialists. They’re all a very important piece to fulfilling kids with mental health issues. I am the only social worker, but I do have a team that helps me get access to helping all students.

Q: Do you have any final remarks or words to put out there? 

A: I am available to McFarland Unified School District students here in McFarland. You do have access to resources, you don’t have to go through this alone. Contact your school counselors.