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Meet the professionals helping Portland students with their post-pandemic mental health

After the disconnection of remote learning during the peak COVID-19 pandemic, students are adjusting to the new normal — but mental health gaps remain.

Christine Pitawanich, Jamie Parfitt

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Published: 5:15 PM PST March 6, 2023
Updated: 2:20 PM PDT March 13, 2023

It's been a rough few years for students, teachers and parents. With leading pediatric health organizations and the U.S. Surgeon General highlighting an urgent need to address youth mental health in late 2021, it became clear that kids nationwide needed help.

Throughout the pandemic, KGW's Christine Pitawanich reported on a number of education-related stories, many of them focused on youth mental health. Mental health professionals broadly agree that there have been pre-existing issues with youth mental health that the pandemic made worse.

It's been more than a year since that Surgeon General advisory, and Pitawanich has been checking in with school counselors at Portland Public Schools to see how things are going now.

Portland Public Schools is the largest district in Oregon, home to roughly 42,000 students scattered across 81 schools. KGW followed three school counselors at Sitton Elementary in St. Johns, West Sylvan Middle School in the Southwest Hills and Lincoln High School downtown.

As students got back in the swing of fully in-person school, Sitton Elementary counselor Deb Blume said that staff have worked hard to make kids feel welcome and at-ease.

"We really focused on empathy and really understanding other people's feelings," Blume said.

The same is true at both the middle and high school levels.

"We've had to be so creative in order to reach kids," reflected Rebecca Cohen, counselor at West Sylvan. "We had to make it even more welcoming and more embracing to their needs."

Credit: Christine Pitawanich, KGW
Bulletin board at West Sylvan Middle School on the outskirts of southwest Portland.

"We're still righting the ship of students going back to normalcy," said Jason Breaker, counselor at Lincoln High School. "The more we're back in person, I've seen less mental health concerns."

Regardless, those mental health issues are still there. School counselors, who often work alongside teachers, said that they are having to teach kids how to interact with adults and one another.

Counselors are often the first line of defense in helping kids who are struggling. A counselor's scope of work is broad, covering everything from suicide to college applications. With hundreds of students under their care, the work is challenging but fulfilling.

"Mental health is everyone's business," Breaker said.

"We want to be foundational for students' academic and emotional health," said Blume.

"It's the best job in the entire world," said Cohen.

Counselors also told KGW that what's happening outside of school walls can affect students as well, seeping into the classroom. That doesn't just encompass home life, but the threat of gun violence and the prevalence of homelessness — things that pervade the atmosphere of the city they call home.

Some viewers expressed concern regarding the three schools profiled: one in North Portland and two others on the city's west side. For more context, KGW spoke with Marquita Guzman, who has worked as a high school counselor for 15 years. She has experience in schools across the district, including those on the east side.

Now, Guzman's role is to oversee and support the roughly 165 school counselors across the district. She said the vast majority of the district's highest needs schools are located on the east side of the city, but each school is different. Guzman said it's true that certain communities on the east side are disproportionately impacted by issues such as the pandemic and violence. Still, she said, students districtwide seem to be doing better than they were last year when they started coming back to the classroom in person, full time.

Guzman also said schools with students who have higher needs tend to have more mental health professionals in their buildings because that's where the funding goes.

For each school that KGW profiled, there are similar struggles and there are different ones. Here's what they're doing to help students succeed.

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