A student rests on his desk at a middle school in California City, California on March 11. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / AP

After two years of the pandemic, students in Portland are more likely than ever to face mental health struggles, education officials say.

That’s in part why Portland school officials have made support services for students a significant part of next school year’s budget, which passed the school board unanimously on Tuesday and will now go to the city council. Late last month, a board committee amended the proposal to include two new social worker positions – it was one of the few changes to the budget before it receives a full school board vote on Tuesday.

Nationwide, mental health struggles for students have become far more acute during the pandemic, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released on Friday. Amid isolation and disruption brought by the virus, persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness went up more than 40 percent among high schoolers from 2009 to 2021. Those reporting a suicide attempt saw an almost identical increase.

While the U.S. CDC study was released after the budget had been formulated, it reflects long-standing beliefs among education officials about the effects of the pandemic on students, which many mental health experts have called a crisis. Those effects came up during budget deliberations last month.

“The needs of our students are so much higher than they have been,” Portland superintendent Xavier Botana said in a public budget forum on March 7.

The district increased investment in mental health support from $3 million to around $9 million over the last five years, said Botana and Chris Reiger, director of clinical and behavioral support services in Portland schools. And staffing for social workers and behavioral health specialists has more than doubled.

Officials also resisted cutting a million dollars in behavioral health support even after they had to remove the revenue stream for it – Medicaid reimbursements that had not been “achievable,” Botana and Reiger said. The money was shifted to come from the general fund instead.

Reiger and Botana both noted that educators and administrators had seen anxiety levels going up in the district, especially among elementary and middle school students.

Schools are an “ideal” place for mental and behavioral support, they said, providing resources to students who are struggling with mental and behavioral problems. Portland schools can also make referrals to outside providers who can provide expanded services.

The school board voted to approve the budget and send it to the city council at their meeting on Tuesday. The new budget will need to be approved by the city council and then voters in June before going into effect.

This year’s total proposed budget is just over $133 million, a 5 percent increase over last year’s. Most of that increase comes from rising costs for salaries, benefits and debt service.

If approved, it will increase the property mill rate by around 28 cents per $1,000 of value. For a family that owns a home valued at $365,000, they will pay around $100 more dollars each year.

Though the CDC data did not specifically include information on Maine, it is “without a question” that anxiety and depression rates among Maine students have increased during the pandemic, said Greg Marley, the clinical director and director of suicide prevention at the Maine branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Marley said those rates have closely corresponded with COVID-19 case rates: amid the recent decrease in coronavirus cases, anxiety and depression have dropped. People are starting to see hope, he said.

“People are re-engaging in their lives. Whether it’s masked or unmasked, we are doing school face-to-face.” Marley said. “Things are getting better for both adults and kids.”

Yet, the pandemic has showcased the severe mental health crises faced by many in Maine and the United States, Marley said. In that regard, it is the responsibility of not just schools but parents in helping their children deal with such problems, he said.

School board member Aura Russell-Bedder, who is a social worker, noted during a budget discussion earlier last month the significant role of positions like social workers in the school budget given the last two years of COVID.

“The mental health needs of our students, and families’ needs, are even more critical right now,” Russell-Bedder said.