Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

My daughter was in crisis. How she returned to learning made all the difference.

Teach Plus
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Published in
5 min readMay 18, 2023

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By Laura Bowers

The following op-ed contains topics that may be sensitive or traumatizing to some audiences. If you are thinking about harming yourself or attempting suicide, tell someone who can help right away. Call 911 for emergency services.

I found Abby on her bedroom floor, unconscious, in multiple organ failure. My 15-year-old daughter, always a perfectionist, overwhelmed by her drive to succeed in school and her parents’ recent divorce, had attempted suicide. I got there in time. After eight days of medical hospitalization, and eight more days in a psychiatric hospital, she was released to go back to her life. I was very fortunate that, after dozens of inquiries, I was able to find a therapist without a two-month waiting list whom she could see once a week.

When Abby went back to school, just three weeks after attempting to take her own life, she was faced with a pile of what teachers deemed essential work. To Abby and to me, it felt like her teachers thought their content trumped her wellness. Any and all coping strategies that she had learned in the hospital were lost. It was as though people thought she had returned “cured” from what ailed her. My experience with Abby helped me see my students through a different lens. She faced the choice to give up her drive for stellar grades or focus on her mental wellness. It is a choice that neither she nor any other young person should have to make because it only adds to their trauma and harms their sense of self.

My daughter’s story is not unique. A 2018 study, which followed 62 youths 10 weeks after their discharge from a psychiatric hospital, found that nearly 50% reported difficulty reintegrating into school. While in their programs, young people did well with supports in place and therapists fostering the environment necessary for implementing coping skills and strategies to help diffuse unhealthy emotions. When they returned to school, the same expectations were in place as when they were first hospitalized, with adults lacking the knowledge to support them even in the simplest ways.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated our students’ mental health crisis. Now more than ever, a school reentry protocol is essential for our students. This protocol should ensure that teachers and school staff are informed and supportive of a student’s transition back to school. Returning to the very environment that might have triggered the crisis is traumatic and understanding the peer dynamics and academic pressures that could again overwhelm students is essential in maintaining the progress made during hospitalization. Protocols should focus on understanding how to support and provide a continuum of care for students returning from partial or full hospitalization and revised work expectations and emotional support for students whose severe anxiety keeps them from accessing their education. Understanding student use of coping skills and the mechanics of triggers will support students’ access to academics and mental wellness. Humanizing our students by providing accommodations like flexible deadlines can help validate their emotions.

Districts should also implement protocols for medical exemptions, which is especially important during the first three months after hospitalization. Abby needed space to practice her coping skills without the fear of academic penalty. The weeks leading up to her crisis would not have been an accurate reflection of her drive and skills, and whatever learning she was able to do immediately after was compromised.

Educators like me also need training on what a partial program for a child in crisis looks like each day. Such training should emphasize coping skills, practices, and strategies on how to approach homework or make-up work. While programs such as Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT) are a good start and have been shown to improve students’ overall functioning during the transition period back into the building, educators still need training to know what to expect when a student returns to class after a hospitalization.

Last, we as educators must shift our mindsets. Students like Abby, who have experienced a mental health crisis or have severe anxiety or depression can still be excellent students. We must practice empathy and non-judgment. Most of all, we must be flexible.

Throughout high school, my daughter was in three partial hospitalization programs. Returning to school was a challenge each time. Now, as a freshman in college, she still struggles with anorexia, depression, and anxiety. Fortunately, she is at a school with five-week terms and she takes one course at a time. She can work online or in person at her own pace to accomplish her goal of being a zoologist. When she has a professor who has taken the time to be educated about mental health, the course contributes to her growth and healing. Slowly but surely, she is getting better.

Laura Bowers is an 8th grade science teacher at North Reading Middle School, in North Reading, Massachusetts. She is a 2022–2023 Teach Plus Massachusetts Policy Fellow.

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