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[Edmentum Podcast] Episode 5: Mental Health During COVID-19 with Andrew Baxter

[Edmentum Podcast] Episode 5: Mental Health During COVID-19 with Andrew Baxter

In our 5th episode of the Edmentum Podcast, David sits down with Andrew Baxter, the lead for the Alberta mental health literacy project. He's worked in school based and community mental health for over 18 years, he currently serves as the lead for the Alberta mental health literacy project, which is rolling out in school boards across the province and is also the lead project coordinator for teenmentalhealth.org, an organization devoted to providing mental health literacy education throughout Canada and across the globe.

The transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is good mental health?

David Cicero: Our guest today is Andrew Baxter. He's worked in school based and community mental health for over 18 years. He currently serves as the lead for the Alberta mental health literacy project, which is rolling out in school boards across the province and is also the lead project coordinator for teenmentalhealth.org, an organization devoted to providing mental health literacy education throughout Canada and across the globe. Andrew, talk to us a little bit about what you do and your background.

Andrew Baxter: Thanks David. When I introduce myself to educators, I think the important thing for them to know about me is that I've spent most of my career in helping students in classrooms. I'm the mental health therapist, so I would be responsible for doing assessments and treatment of kids with mental illness or mental problems. And I would be a consultant to teachers about how that impacts their classroom behavior, how they're doing at school. And my job is to help modify the environment as well as provide some treatment to help kids do better.

David Cicero: So, if we sort of just want to jump into this topic of mental health. What does good mental health look like?

Andrew Baxter: You know, it's interesting that you start with that question because I think this is one of the things we battle against is a lot of a semantic confusion around what good mental health is. How do we define mental health? One of the challenges is it is very difficult to define mental health for any one given person.

It's hard to know what's mentally healthy for me, it may be different for somebody else. And I think right now the confusion out there is that people think that if I have any kind of negative mood states or negative emotions, like I feel sad or disconnected, therefore I have poor mental health, and that's not true. Good mental health is having a wide range of emotions. Some days we feel excited, some days we feel engaged, some, some days we feel disconnected or tired or lazy. And that range in emotional mood is actually all components of good mental health. So, we can't make the mistake of saying, "I'm not happy today, therefore my mental health isn't good."

What should educators look for when it comes to mental health and students?

Andrew Baxter: The important thing to keep in mind is that we don't want to ask educators to be diagnosers. Those are jobs better left for people with the appropriate training and being clinicians. But what educators are is really good screeners, or identifiers, of youth that may be in that gray zone or we have concerns about, because educators have eyes on a lot of youth, they play such an important role in helping identify and treat those students. And I would say that health or education can't do this alone. We have to work together. The task is simply too big. So what we've been looking for from the clinical side of things is: Has there been a change? When did this start? How is this impacting the kid's baseline functioning?

If you had a student that had been talking to the honor roll and right on the basketball team and had a really good social group and got along with our parents really well, and then all of a sudden we start to see changes [such as] they don't attend as well, they switched their peer group or their peer interactions changed. Those are signs for concern potentially. And that's where we'd want to make sure that we get that kid to somebody that can have a good look at what's going on for them.

I always say that many teachers know their students better than sometimes parents know their kids because even myself, I have two young kids at home. I don't make them do math when they get home from school or have big attentional demands on them. I don't see them as extensively with peer interactions as say an educator sees them at recess or at lunch time. So educators have a lot of contextual information that myself as a clinician or as a family physician or a psychiatrist just doesn't get. Educators bring such an important piece of the puzzle when we're talking about a youth's mental health.

What can educators do to help?

David Cicero: And that kind of leads into the sort of mental health concerns that a school or district might sort of have on their mind as we're all transitioning. I mean, so many students have made a very, very quick transition to online learning. So if I have one student that had perfect attendance, and was a high achiever, and now I might be looking at data online now or inviting the student to participate in activities I'm doing online and all a sudden they've just kind of checked out.

Andrew Baxter: I think it's going to take us all a while to adjust to this situation. The challenge is I think in looking for those contextual keys. We're not going to be able to see peripherally to all of the things that we were able to see before. I would face the same issue as a clinician. If I can't see somebody in person, it's harder to gauge their affect. It's harder to gauge their facial expressions. We're in a new challenge here. It may be difficult to pick up on some of the nonverbal clues in an online environment. It may be difficult to see things like peer interaction. What I'd recommend is that think about what you're missing in seeing your students in an online environment versus face to face and then follow up with that directly.

Check in with them. Sometimes this is called in the literature light touch intervention where we just do a touch base with that youth. Both of my kids, their teachers have checked in since being at home for school. This has been through letters. We got a phone call the other day from my daughter's teacher and she just wanted to touch base and see how's it going? How are you adjusting? Are you able to see your friends online? What are you doing to go outside? It was a really directing personal thing to just of check in on how they're both functioning. So, if there's opportunities to look for that, I'd highly recommend that teachers take it because we've had some of those tools that we'd normally use in face to face classroom stripped away from us.

Framing the conversation

David Cicero: You gave us a couple things [an educator can ask] like, ‘Are you able to see your friends? Are you able to get outside?’ What else? If I was going to say that was a teacher and I was saying, you know what, "I'm going to make phone calls tomorrow." What does that conversation [ with a student] kind of look like?

Andrew Baxter: If I'm a teacher and I'm calling to a student's home, I want to check on some of the basics, and I can't stress this enough. I think mental health is so interconnected with physical health. We have tons of data showing how important the link is between exercise and mental health and good eating and mental health and structure and discipline and routine and mental health. Those are the things that I would start with, [asking] what does your day look like? ‘Well, I sleep till 11:30 and sometimes I do math in the morning or sometimes I take a day off from school.’ I'm concerned about that.

if you're phoning home to students, I've asked ‘How are you sleeping? When do you work? When do you touch base with parents? Have you been able to connect with your friends? What kind of goals do you have for being at home?’ How does it feel that we're not being able to do soccer right now, or we're not able to play football? Those types of just touch base questions and ask, ‘What's the youth's understanding of that? How do you feel math is going to go with this?’

Look for those relationships that you already had fostered. You know your students best. And I would tell teachers to, to pick up where you left off from a face to face environment. What do you know about that student that you can bring up with them in that phone conversation to check in with them?

What should you do when you notice something is off?

David Cicero: So I've followed a couple of the pieces of advice that you've given and I'm noticing something that's just not right. Now as teachers in a traditional school, we have a process for kind of taking that next step maybe with a school counselor or something like that. So, what does this look like online? If I do see something that's of concern, I would follow my school protocol for counseling. Is that right?

Andrew Baxter: Absolutely. One of the things that we do as a part of our educator training is we have school districts, school boards, schools even independently make a map of how does a youth in a classroom with a mental health need get to services? What's their pathway through care? Each school has its own pathway and we want to know everybody that sees a kid to know that pathway. So, we often have them just generate a map and then share that amongst their school or their staff. The map might look a little different in an online process, but it should be there. It should be normal. Remember too that we may be seeing, we're obviously going to see a huge amount of disruption given what's going on.

We're all adjusting to a very new stressor and a very large stressor. So, give it some time. Let things settle before we start sending up the flares for every kid. Because we know that a lot of this is a mental problem, not a mental disorder in response to a new environmental stressor. Give a period of adjustment, and I'm just going to pick something about four to six weeks as things settle, and nobody really knows what reality we're going to be facing on a daily basis. This is a shifting dynamic. But give some time for things to settle. And then if you're still seeing issues with students that you're concerned about, then it's time to find that pathway to care. Whatever your start point may be in your system.

To hear the full conversation, and learn more about mental health literacy, be sure to listen to [Edmentum Podcast] Episode 5: Mental Health During COVID-19 with Andrew Baxter.

If listeners are interested in learning a little bit more about teenmentalhealth.org and what Andrew Baxter and team are doing, contact them through the website or explore their available resources, the mental health and high school curriculum guide, and useful videos designed to help introduce mental health literacy.

Be sure to follow the Edmentum podcast on your favorite streaming service, and stay tuned for upcoming episodes!

david.cicero's picture

David has worked in education for 14 years. He has spent the last 6 years in the education technology industry and is currently working as an Educational Programs Consultant. As a trusted advisor and education technology advocate he has helped countless districts and schools successfully integrate technology. David holds a B.A. in Mathematics from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas and a M.A. in Teaching from Northern Arizona University. 

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