Student-led grant to focus on mental health of middle schoolers

The course of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of people of all ages. K-12 students, in particular, have suffered from their everchanging virtual and in-person schedules, causing feelings of anxiety and depression. Students at Baylor College of Medicine aim to provide resources and coping mechanisms for teachers and students to improve their well-being amid the everchanging climate of the pandemic.

Snigdha Srivastava, an M.D./Ph.D. student, Rachel Shenoi, third-year medical student, and their faculty mentor Dr. Kirti Saxena, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences received a 2021-2022 Helping Hands Grant Award from the American Psychiatric Association Foundation for their project “Improving Identification and Awareness of Student Mental Health Impacted by COVID-19.” The Helping Hands Grant is offered to medical students who are pursuing a community-based project in mental health, typically in underserved communities. Through this grant, they will provide teachers and students at Baylor College of Medicine Biotech Academy at Rusk, a BCM partner middle school with HISD, with a framework for recognizing symptoms of anxiety and depression among students while connecting them with mental health resources.

Rachel Shenoi, left, and Snigdha Srivastava

Rachel Shenoi, left, and Snigdha Srivastava

Last month, the Baylor students provided Rusk teachers with an educational session on recognizing symptoms of depression and anxiety in students. This in-service training illustrated what teachers should specifically look out for in students as they return to in-person classes. They also plan to administer a perceived stress scale survey to students identified as higher risk by the counselors to determine those who are more likely to have depression and anxiety.

“We’re hoping to do sessions with them every two weeks over the course of several months on a variety of issues, including mindfulness, meditation, yoga, healthy eating, bullying, self-compassion and identity – issues that are unique to middle school students that will be especially helpful for those who are struggling with depression and anxiety. We will also combine this with a reflection activity to understand what’s going on in their lives and build on that from session to session,” Shenoi said.

Student sessions are structured around coping mechanisms, and the start of each session will include a journaling prompt. Reflective journaling about their week will lead into a different discussion and activity each week. Some coping mechanisms they will focus on will include learning breathing exercises from a breathing coach as well as a yoga lesson.

On top of the Baylor students’ initiative using the perceived stress scale as a tool to measure students’ well-being, teachers should also observe changing behavior in their students who are most at risk for anxiety and depression.

“You’re looking for a deviation from normal behavior,” Srivastava said. “Dr. Saxena has told us that kids may complain about somatic problems. Look out for students who may be visiting the nurse’s office more than they typically do. If a child who is normally gregarious and talkative with friends starts getting quiet, this is also something to consider.”

Teachers are encouraged to set the stage at the start of the school year by asking their students about their past year and acknowledging that it was struggle. These conversations will legitimize the students’ emotions. They also will frequently check in on students throughout the year, especially with the difficult adjustment from virtual to in-person learning. Educators will learn to know when to refer their students to counseling and to further escalate care to psychologists and psychiatrists when necessary.

“It is important to bring about mental health awareness in our communities. Students spend a great deal of their time at school with their peers and teachers. Therefore, this is an ideal environment to bring about awareness and recognition of mental health issues and learning where to receive help for it. Teachers need to be well-equipped to understand and recognize when their students are struggling with mental health issues,” Saxena said. “We are fortunate to have received this grant to partner with Rusk Middle School to implement this important work. It is a pleasure to work with the BCM students and residents on community initiatives. This project is a perfect example of bringing a mental health educational program into an environment familiar to students and their teachers.”

Srivastava and Shenoi felt compelled to create this project after reviewing data and news depicting the pandemic’s impact on the youth.

“Both of us are really interested in psychiatry – specifically child psychiatry – and pediatrics. I love working with kids, and this was a fun way to explore that while also connecting it to my medical school experience and the struggles of the past year and a half,” Shenoi said.

“We want to help the kids gain coping mechanisms that are sustainable and can be used even beyond our sessions. Hopefully they take something valuable away from this program that they can use throughout their lives,” Srivastava said.

Srivastava and Shenoi are co-leading the grant, while Saxena serves as their mentor and project administrator. They also are working with residents to plan sessions and a field trip at the end of the program. Student sessions will begin in mid-October. If interested in volunteering to help with sessions contact Snigdha.Srivastava@bcm.edu or Rachel.Shenoi@bcm.edu.