Littleton Public Schools mental health study complicated by pandemic

Long-term study by sociologist moving forward under strange circumstances

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Last year, sociology professor Dr. Anna Mueller and her colleagues embarked on a study of how young people's social connections relate to suicide prevention, planning to focus on a couple normal school years in Littleton and Mesa County public schools.

But 2020 has been anything but normal.

Just months into the study, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools to in-person learning, causing the greatest reorganizing of public schooling in modern history.

Now, Mueller says, the task is to understand and factor in the impact of the pandemic, and craft a report that provides useful conclusions out of a tumultuous time.

“It literally is a massive tragedy that hit all of these schools at once,” Mueller told the Littleton school board in an Oct. 8 workshop. “They all have to figure ways to cope with this. We don't need to make this into a catastrophe, but I think there's enough evidence that this pandemic is quite hard for mental health.”

Read 'Littleton Public Schools to be subject of youth suicide study,' Oct. 2019

Mueller said she cannot yet divulge emerging trends from her research because doing so could influence how the remainder of the research goes. She said she plans to deliver the final report in the months after the end of the current school year.

How to build resiliency

Mueller, a professor of sociology from Indiana University, is leading the study, while her colleague Sarah Diefendorf is conducting a concurrent study in Mesa County on Colorado's Western Slope. Seth Abrutyn, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, is assisting both Mueller and Diefendorf.

The study, “Social Worlds and Youth Wellbeing Study,” is being conducted two ways, according to its website, socialworlds.info: Mueller and Diefendorf observe “youth-centered community life in schools and other community locations,” and also conduct interviews and focus groups with youths, school staff, parents and other community members.

The study's goals, according to the website, are twofold: “How can we build connectedness in schools and communities that facilitates a sense of belonging and effective help-seeking among youth? How can we build better mental health safety systems in schools and communities to better help youth who are struggling & improve suicide prevention?”

So far, Mueller told the school board, she has conducted 27 interviews with youths, four with young adults, 20 with school and district staff, 63 with parents and four with community professionals who aren't parents or district staff.

Schools of hard knocks

While Mueller originally intended to conduct most of the strudy from Littleton, she returned to Indiana in the spring as the pandemic kicked into high gear and has not yet returned, citing restrictions on putting study subjects at risk of infection.

However, she said the district's switch to an abundance of online learning has allowed her and her colleagues to sit in on hundreds of hours of classes.

“This is really allowing us an unprecedented look at how a district goes about the everyday work of suicide prevention,” she said. “We're seeing everything on a school's plate. What schools are coping with is greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, because we're all inventing new ways of doing things almost on a daily basis.”

The next big step is a series of surveys of parents and school staff.

The parent surveys will seek to better understand parents' beliefs and knowledge around suicide prevention, asking questions like whether parents believe suicide is preventable, what are the barriers to suicide prevention, whether they would be willing to undergo suicide prevention training themselves, what their awareness is of the suicide prevention and mental health resources currently available, and what experiences they have had with the existing network of help.

Mueller said she is also willing to work with the school district on crafting surveys for students, though that would require crossing greater thresholds of approval and collaboration with school officials.

What does it all mean?

School board President Jack Reutzel questioned whether the research will produce data that will still be useful once the pandemic is past and schooling returns to normal, saying that parent surveys could reflect current polarized attitudes toward the pandemic.

“There's a segment that says we're harming kids (with partial in-person learning) and we should be all-(online), and that could skew answers, and we have folks on the other side who say it's all a dang hoax, get students back in school five days a week, and that's going to skew their answer.”

Mueller said understanding the impact of the pandemic will be central to the final report, but the conclusions should be far-reaching.

“We've agonized over that and spent a lot of time debating what on earth we are observing right now, and what does it mean for our project that we had this year,” she said. “Would I wish for this? Absolutely not, but in some ways people are more willing to talk about mental health, (and we're) using this pandemic as a lever for an entree into that conversation.”

On the other hand, said board member Robert Reichardt, Mueller's research could prove invaluable as the district recovers from the pandemic in coming years.

“We need an understanding of the hole we're in as we get out of it over the next two years,” Reichardt said. “Knowing our status at peak pandemic might be useful... Quite frankly, one of the most important things to do is prepare for the next pandemic, because there will be more.”

There are already some unexpected results from the pandemic, said Nate Thompson, the district's director of social, emotional and behavior services.

“Some of our data doesn't match with the public perception about how bad mental health is for kids (during the pandemic),” Thompson said. “What we're actually seeing is more of that aligning with staff and adults having significant stressors.”

Realistically, the knowledge gained from the study should apply beyond the school district, said board member Carrie Warren-Gully.

“This is a community issue,” Warren-Gully said. “This cannot rest solely on the shoulders of our schools... how can we work together to provide services?”

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