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Indiana Counselor of the Year says he’s facing an ‘epidemic’ of student mental health needs

Written by Dylan Pierce McCoy
WFYI

As a school counselor, Aaron Monson usually has a few students each year who needs to assess suicide risk. But during the pandemic, he has seen more children suffer from suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Last school year, he had to evaluate five students in just six weeks.

“It’s a wake-up call,” said Monson, who works with elementary and middle school students at Butler Lab at School 55 in Indianapolis Public Schools. But our students are affected in so profound ways that I really don’t think we’ll see the full ramifications of another decade likely.”

Munson, as a 15-year veteran lecturer, was recently appointed as an elementary school counselor for the year 2022 by the Indiana School Counselors Association.

When Monson was dealing with increased suicide risk this past school year, he also noticed that most of the students he had to rate were LGBTQ. For this reason, he helped create a group for LGBTQ students and allies, known as the Genders & Sexualities Alliance. He also wrote a curriculum for discussing these issues in the small extension groups that he runs at lunchtimes.

The increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts observed by Monson are supported by mounting national evidence. In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, emergency department visits rose for mental health concerns among elementary and middle school-aged children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recent data shows that visits for attempted suicide increased significantly among adolescent girls. And a survey from 2020 found that about a third of parents think their children’s mental health is worse than it was before the pandemic.

“It’s as if the building is on fire, and I have a water cup fitted with it to try and put it out,” said Monson, who is licensed as a school counselor and mental health counselor through Butler University. The mental health of our students, to me, is to say an epidemic in and of itself.”

WFYI Education Reporter Dylan Pierce McCoy met with Monson in his office to talk about the trauma his students have faced and what motivates him. Below is a revised and condensed version of their conversation.

Dylan Pierce McCoy: What inspired you to become a teacher?

Aaron Monson: Honestly, it was probably the teachers I had. It’s an interesting route because I didn’t have much contact at all with my advisor. But I have very deep connections with my professors. I grew up in a very rural community. And this community had only one high school in the entire county. It was a very small high school. So the teachers really got to know the students really well. The teachers I was using were also among the only safe adults in my life. I just wanted to be in school all the time.

iron: Do you think you have students here who have the same sense that school is the safest place in their lives?

Monson: Unfortunately yes. This is not the case for every student. But this is true for many. Before I got here, I had to take a moment and let out an ugly shriek. Because today is the last day and students are giving gifts to teachers. I was lucky to get some today. And one of them was a certain student who was here who had a very tumultuous experience at home and wrote me one of the most honest cards. I’m tearing up again. One of the most honest cards I’ve had in 16 years. I just comment on the fact that for the first time she feels known, feels visible, and was so grateful to have space in my office to cry ugly. And I worked with her to get the support and help the family needed. And that card contained a small piece of chocolate in addition to the card. And this is going to be tucked into my smile folder for the really hard days, which for now because we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, I have to rely on this smile folder a lot. To remind me that’s what I do. This is why I do what I do.

iron: Can you tell me a little bit about the changes you’ve noticed in your students and their behavior during this incredibly chaotic time when they were still dealing with quarantine and the pandemic?

Monson: Yes, in our school we believe that behavior is language. And when a student behaves, he’s trying to tell us something. So there were a lot of changes that were difficult for adults and children as well. So some of the other challenges I’ve noticed with the behaviors, especially on our older students starting in fifth grade, are some suicidal thoughts, and self-harm. Just trying to get the students to be able to organize themselves became quite a challenge. And the situation hasn’t improved much because we still have students at the moment, for example, who have to isolate them and we won’t see them again. The last day of this quarter ended last week because we had a positive COVID case, for example.

iron: Do you have any tips for teachers, parents and caregivers to help children cope with the pandemic?

Monson: My advice is always to start with yourself. A disorganized adult will not be able to help organize the child. Working on yourself will be the best gift you can give to your children and students.

Contact WFYI Education Reporter Dylan Peers McCoy at dmccoy@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: Tweet embed.

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