Counselors offer insights on COVID

As the pandemic continues, counselors inside and outside of Ector County Independent School District have noticed an increase in suicidal ideation, stress and anxiety among children, parents and the community.
Christy McGuire, a counselor at Gonzales Elementary School, Anthony Garza, an SAS counselor at Nimitz Middle School, Mary Perry, a psychosocial coordinator for PermiaCare, and Mark McQueen, clinical director for Centers for Children and Families, spoke about during a panel discussion on ECISD Live Thursday night.
The discussion was titled Winter Wellness.
Garza said when students go to middle school they expect to see their friends and go from class to class. The pandemic has disrupted that and counselors have to do their best to help them adjust and give them resources so they can focus on their education.
Perry said she has seen increased suicidal ideations. She said a lot of it has to do with the virus, the political environment, not being able to pay their bills and not being able to pay rent.
Superintendent Scott Muri said for several months Ector County had the highest unemployment rate in the state at 13 percent. Now it is at 10 percent and those rates create a lot of family stress.
McQueen said he has seen a significant increase in anxiety from families and a number of both adults and children who have been able to manage those symptoms on their own before but need extra support now.
McGuire said the role of a school counselor has changed because of the pandemic, but her campus supports her in letting her see her students.
She said there is an increase in anxiety among the students and the parents. She tries to check in on the whole family and let them know the campus is a safe place.
Garza said his job is to be a support for the campus, but also for the professional counselors at the school.
"Our job is to really focus on emotional support, psychological support, psycho education. We are there to provide a Band-Aid for a lot of issues that come up in school," Garza said.
He added that they provide coping skills, but don’t do full-blown counseling. They offer referrals to other agencies and refer them to services that they may need.
Garza said his job was simpler when students could just come to his office, but he makes himself available to virtual students as well.
McGuire said signs of stress with younger children is their stomachs may start hurting or they have headaches. They may get frustrated more easily. She said she always recommends that parents check in with their children and ask how they’re doing and if they need help with anything. She added that she is also available online to her students and when she’s on break, her phone is forwarded to her cell.
Garza said he’s noticed that students have had to develop a whole new kind of discipline for their school work without the teacher or Peres to motivate them. But he pointed out that a lot of college course are offered completely online.
Perry said she is seeing families with increased alcohol and drug use just based on the stress they are going through. She added that there seems to be an increase in family violence based on the inability to pay bills and make sure they can put food on the table.
McQueen said Centers for Families and Children offers individual and family counseling and they offer help from a secure virtual platform for those who may not want to come to the office.
He noted that children are better at letting them know at they’re stressed before adults notice it. Adults may find they are drinking more, losing interest in things they used to enjoy and things that didn’t make them irritable before do now.
One good thing is to ask families if they can identify things that are good about being together.
During the holiday break, McGuire recommended being cognizant of how you’re feeling, checking in with your children and doing things with them.
Garza said the break is a time for students to relax and forget about their worries.
Perry said people should be patient with each other and noted that everyone is going through the same thing and may just be experiencing it in different ways. She said PermiaCare offers mental health first aid services free to ECISD staff.
If you notice changes in friends or family ask them straight up if they plan to kill themselves. Perry said sometimes they just need someone to say they’re paying attention and they’re listening.
McQueen said even without COVID the cold months can be a dark time.
"One of the main things one of the things lost in 2020 is just the natural rhythm and markers throughout the year. … As much some of us fight against it, we do best when there is routine …," McQueen said.
He added that most people just need to know that you’re listening, you care and you have empathy for them. McQueen said you don’t need to come up with a solution that fixes everything.
McGuire said be willing to ask the question, but more than anything be willing to listen.
"You don’t have to have the perfect answer, but ask and just be willing to listen," she said. "Sometimes they just need to get it off their chest," she said.
Garza said sometimes neighbors or someone a family goes to church with can call the school and ask if that child can see a counselor. He said the school is going to be able to give them to the resources that are necessary or refer them to another agency.
As for words of wisdom, McGuire said everyone is going through the same thing, but you are not alone. She suggested slowing down and taking a couple of deep breaths.
Garza said this will pass and we will eventually get through it.
"The best thing I can say," Perry said, "is be gentle with yourself. We’re going to make mistakes and we learn from them. We have to try to figure out how to pick up the pieces and move on. …"