Needing mental health resources, tech adds support in schools

Today’s students are in the unique position of being a generation growing up in the digital age whose relationship to technology has also been transformed by the pandemic.

While many are naturally adept at figuring out how devices function, school districts are trying new technologies that can help students and parents better understand and discuss mental health and the responsible use of technology.

Jennifer Ulie-Wells, executive director of Please Pass the Love, a nonprofit advocating for youth mental health, said she has seen numerous area districts implementing behavioral health technologies to ensure student safety, especially toward the beginning of the pandemic when students were not in school.

The pandemic led to an exacerbation of students’ mental health needs and the need for a comprehensive system of resources, Ulie-Wells said, which has also meant a continuation of the workforce development issue among mental health professions.

With fewer than 30 active child psychiatrists working in the state of Iowa, she said behavioral health technologies are “a good tool to leverage” to support youths and educators.

“While we would love to say that tomorrow Iowa is going to have 1,000 people show up ready to do mental health for us, there [are] a couple of issues,” she said.

The Waukee Community School District started working with Securly, a student wellness company, using its web filter capability to classify permitted websites in 2020. Ulie-Wells said Securly and companies like it have adapted the filtering tool to check for signs that students could be facing a mental health challenge.

District staff worked with Securly to identify words and phrases that when searched or sent in a message on a district-owned device, school counselors and administrators receive an alert in real time, including outside of school hours. They also set up different levels of alerts that can help the school staff determine the best response.

Haylie Steffensmeier, a counselor at Waukee’s South Middle School, said engaging with students in conversation about their mental health has been the main outcome from Securly so far.

“It has added an extra layer of support to everything that I try to do in person every day, but also knowing, with how connected our kids are, that we have this service that’s helping us. There’s no silver bullet, there is nothing perfect that is out there. But we are so far happy with the things that it has alerted us to,” she said.

“It’s at least opened up some dialogue with students or parents that we wouldn’t have known needed to be happening.”

Student Services Advisor Brett Whittle said each alert and initial conversation with students is treated with seriousness, given the lack of context that comes with written electronic communication. Cases that turn out to not involve a mental health need can be opportunities to discuss digital citizenship.

“Sometimes even when they’re sending it to friends, friends might not be able to know the context either,” Whittle said. “It’s one of those things for them to be mindful of as they continue to get older [and] have more freedoms and responsibilities with that technology.”

A more frequent use of Securly in the district is a weekly report parents can receive detailing what their child searched or watched on their device, which Steffensmeier said is often a way for parents to connect with students about what they’re learning.

Whittle said some parents were unsure about using Securly at first, but after learning how it works it has started to provide them more peace of mind. For parents wary about new technologies in schools, Ulie-Wells said that’s where it’s important to build a trusting relationship with educators to look after the best interest of their students while at school.

“People have to continue to have that faith because in these situations we don’t want to create more barriers to getting help,” she said.

However, she also said some caution can help prevent potential harm, as not all of the available behavioral health apps and technologies are based on scientific research and evidence.

Although this wide range of technologies and their features like chats is more unfamiliar to parents, they are an everyday language for students and could serve a larger role in helping them engage with and manage their thoughts and emotions.

Despite the negative effects of the pandemic on students’ mental health, it has perhaps influenced some of their interactions around mental health for the better. Steffensmeier said “supportive email conversations” with students is becoming the more comfortable way for many to reach out and seek help. Additionally, as students saw all their classmates dealing with the pandemic, Whittle said it normalized conversations about mental health.

Please Pass the Love is currently running its own behavioral health technology pilot program where high school students are testing five apps focusing on different aspects of mental health management and reporting their feedback.

Ulie-Wells said new apps and technologies are constantly being developed, but that one of the more considerable shifts is the change in perspective on technology’s role in a comprehensive mental health support system.

“I think if people are doing it right, they’re looking at it as an opportunity, not a challenge,” she said. “How do we really reimagine everything from education to mental health to children’s mental health, to everything we do and that should be a question we’re asking ourselves. What do we need to be doing to be more streamlined, to have a wider reach, to be more rigorous? And I think technology provides that.”