Copa Closet

Maricopa High School counselor Amber Liermann stands next to clothing that was donated for students at Maricopa High School’s CopaCloset in 2018.

MARICOPA — In these unprecedented times, there are many who are struggling. Loss of family members, jobs, homes and relationships can leave families reeling, and the youngest of the household feel these pains just as acutely as the adults around them.

Amber Liermann, a 17-year veteran counselor for Maricopa High School and newly elected City Council member, says there has been an unparalleled rise in students who are experiencing grief in 2020.

“We have had a significant increase in grief issues with students this year,” Liermann said. “We’ve had an exceptional number of students experience a loss in their life. Many students have, unfortunately and sadly, lost a family member to death. … We have youth that are experiencing grief at a level I haven’t really seen before. Grief — it can be very overwhelming.”

Other students have lost their homes, or their parents have lost their jobs, creating huge changes in the children’s lives.

Counselors at Maricopa Unified School District regularly see students who deal with anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation, but grief on this level is unusual.

Students who are experiencing grief might feel anxiety, stress, depression, isolation and loneliness as a result. Liermann, who has previously worked with all age groups in MUSD as a counselor for multiple campuses, said grief can also manifest in a variety of physical symptoms.

“It impacts (students) in the way of difficulty concentrating,” Liermann said. “With grief, a lot of times there’s change in sleeping and eating patterns — and these are not things you can control. You can do your best, but oftentimes these are very interruptive symptoms.”

And these symptoms can have big ramifications in the classroom. According to Liermann, she has seen students who typically receive A’s and B’s now getting C’s and D’s. This could be due to technology issues, multiple and rapid changes to schooling due to outbreaks and shutdowns or to outside issues stemming from the pandemic.

“Our kids and teachers are challenged by the circumstances that we’re in,” said Superintendent Tracey Lopeman at a Nov. 18 school board meeting. “In the secondary grades, we have a number of students who are failing at least one class.”

Liermann says students who are used to performing at a higher level become discouraged by their grades, and it can cause a spiraling effect.

“They’re underperforming, and they know it — and what a terrible feeling,” Liermann said. “We see students who are struggling with identity issues, self-esteem issues. I’ve seen students less willing to take risks, like goal setting. It’s impacting the way our students perceive their ability to perform.”

With nearly half of MUSD students moving online, there were also concerns that cyberbullying and other bullying behaviors could rise. However, district data shows a continued decrease in reported bullying behaviors and known cyberbullying incidents starting spring semester 2020. This is possibly due to an increase in feelings of sympathy for others among students during the pandemic, or to feelings of increased isolation.

“When we’re talking about bullying and self-injury and suicide, we have to remember that we’re just looking at information that’s been reported,” Liermann added.

In the case of self-injury and attempted suicide, while the reported numbers have decreased this year, known hospitalizations of students for mental health concerns has increased.

The technology department at MUSD has worked diligently to monitor trigger words such as “suicide,” curse words and threats to self or others typed by students. When a trigger word is used, administrators are notified and counselors are contacted.

In a Sept. 8 board meeting, administration reported 783 vulgar words had already been typed, and “suicide” had been searched three times.

Nationally, one in five children will experience mental health needs before the age of 18. These health issues can be as serious as a broken bone, and Liermann says mental health should be taken seriously. As a mother of four, she understands firsthand how difficult it can be to tell if a child is just “going through a phase” or something more serious.

“If I wondered if my child was sick, if they had the flu or something, I would take them to the doctor to make sure that they were OK … I would seek medical support to help look for a diagnosis or rule out any concerns for my child,” Liermann said. “Mental health is no different than that.”

If a parent or guardian sees symptoms of anxiety, depression, self-injury, panic attacks or grief, Liermann advises them to seek the help of school counselors or outside psychologists to help rule out any significant concerns.

Liermann warned that “without treatment, mental health can continue to deteriorate and get more serious and the symptoms can become worse.”

The team of 21 counselors at MUSD has worked hard over the summer to ensure there is a network of online support for students who are struggling with mental health this year, and Liermann says that it has proved to be even more effective than in-person counseling in some ways. Counseling services are available to students via teletherapy, either over Google Meet or email.

“The honest truth (is), I think some of our students feel much more comfortable participating in counseling through those modes or methods versus coming and sitting in my office,” Liermann said. “Think of a 14-year-old boy or 16-year-old boy, do they really want to come and sit in my office and talk to me? Most of them don’t, because it’s just not comfortable.”

She said parents report similar issues with out-of-school therapy, that their child will not participate if brought to a therapist, but will participate in school counseling as it is a more comfortable experience.

Educators in the district have also been given more training in trauma-informed care, helping teachers understand the effects of trauma neurologically and the way it can manifest in the classroom.

“Trauma, grief, loss and change literally changes the way a child’s brain works,” Liermann said. “I think it helps our teachers understand that students aren’t always just not caring or not trying.”

In addition, students have been given the opportunity this year to retake assignments and tests they may not have performed well on the first time due to outside inhibitors.

School can become much more difficult for a child who doesn’t have a bed to sleep on or food in their belly, and this is where CopaCloset can fill the gap.

Liermann founded CopaCloset in 2018, and it has since expanded into a series of totally free “stores” located at MHS, Maricopa Wells Middle School and Maricopa Elementary, which provide food, clothing, shoes, toiletries, school supplies and more to students in need. A student can take what necessities they want, and also make requests for items.

Most recently, students are in need of earbuds for online school work, school supplies and jackets for all ages. Maricopa Elementary specifically is in need of kindergarten/first grade underwear and socks.

Those interested in dropping off donations to help stock the CopaCloset can do so during regular business hours at MHS. To find out more about how to donate to CopaCloset and what MUSD children need most right now, visit the CopaCloset Facebook page.

Parents and guardians who have any concerns about their child’s mental health and well-being are encouraged to reach out to their child’s counselor and teachers to ensure their needs are met.

Warning signs of suicide include feeling empty or hopeless, withdrawing from family or friends, experiencing extreme mood swings and changes in eating and sleeping patterns. If these warning signs apply to you or someone you know, get help as soon as possible, particularly if the behavior is new or has increased recently.

The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.