Mental Health Monday’s – Back to School: Tips to Help Children’s Mental Health

Back to School Tips to Help Children’s Mental Health

On Monday, July 26, Caroline Brennan, supervisor for Mental Health Supports & Social Emotional Learning, Collier County Public Schools, and Sherry Wenzel, Mental Health Services coordinator for the School District of Lee County offered tips for parents to address children’s mental health and get children ready to go back to school on Aug. 10 in Lee and Collier counties.

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Tolls of Isolation and Pandemic on Children’s Mental Health 

The isolation, changes in education and effects of the pandemic have resulted in an increase in domestic violence, drug abuse, child abuse and other issues. Students have experienced:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Self-harm
  • Lost or undeveloped social skills
  • Financial difficulties
  • Food insecurity
  • Housing instability
  • Loss/Grief
  • Educational backslides

Children’s Mental Health Concerns for Return to School

The isolation, changes in education and effects of the pandemic have resulted in an increase in domestic violence, drug abuse, child abuse and other issues. Students have experienced:

  • Establishing sleep/homework/exercise routines
  • Navigating school rules and routines
  • Increased anxiety and fear
  • Navigating face to face social interactions
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Healthy vs unhealthy coping strategies
  • Lack of access to treatment and medications
  • Knowing where, when and how to access help

Returning to routines and rules of school can be a huge shift after living in a virtual world, including in-person adjustments. Also, many mental health services for children and adults who needed them were impacted by the pandemic. As a result, we know when school starts, we’ll begin to address these needs. But we are going to be challenged to meeting those needs. We realize that many people have struggled during this time. You don’t need to be mentally ill to not be mentally well.

It’s like the backpacks children have to carry. In addition to the physical items they have to carry, imagine as physical objects the feelings, the stresses, the responsibilities, the expectations, experience and worries children may have had during this time. They are bringing all of that with them. For many students, this can become way too heavy for them to carry. We need to remember that many of our students will be returning to school with emotionally heavy backpacks. As a result, finding ways to build student resilience and connectedness as well as healthy coping strategies is going to be critical.

Signs of Children’s Mental Health or Behavioral Concerns

Here are things to look for that might indicate mental health concerns or indications of lack of mental wellness. The key to these behaviors being beyond typical is: are they persistent? You know what’s typical for your child. Also, it is important to hone into our children’s behaviors before the first day of school Aug. 10.

Pre-School/Early Elementary Years

  • Behavior problems. Having a difficult time following schedule and routine
  • Hyperactivity way beyond normal/typical child behavior
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Excessive fear, worry or crying. They can be impacted by stressors of adults
    around them
  • Extreme disobedience or aggression
  • Lots of temper tantrums all the time
  • Persistent difficulty separating from parent, especially if they were virtual
    all of the last school year

Grade School Years (4-8 grade)

  • Excessive fears and worries. Access to social media and digital communication
    and news increases worry
  • Extreme hyperactivity
  • Sudden decrease in school performance
  • Loss of interest in friends or favorite activities, withdrawal
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive worry about weight gain, and physical appearance
  • Sudden changes in sleep habits
  • Visible prolonged sadness
  • Substance use or abuse
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not there

Tween and Teen Years

  • Destructive behavior such as damaging property or setting fires
  • Constantly threatening to run away or running away
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Comments or writings that indicate desire to harm self or others. This is a red
    flag to pay attention to. Reach out to mental health professionals to get help as
    quickly as possible
  • Risky behaviors. What is excessive risky behavior?
  • Substance use or abuse. Is it experimentation or persistent?

Tips for Supporting Children’s Mental Health

Communication is key with teachers, the school, doctors and our children.

  • Establish school-day routines early (homework and bedtime). We need to do it now, before school starts. Call the school and find out what time their lunch is, particularly since they have been used to eating at different times.
  • Get involved
  • Encourage open communication
  • Incorporate positive reinforcement. Tell them when they are doing well
  • Maintain an optimistic tone and positive attitude with children
  • Practice expectations
  • Exercise compassion. Our students are scared, anxious, worried
  • COMMUNICATE with your child, your child’s teachers and school. Listen and acknowledge their fears. Give them coping strategies for when they are afraid.
  • Meet the teacher. Show them the classroom, if possible, where they will sit.
  • Read books or watch educational cartoons about things you may be concerned about for your child.
  • Set up school zones and expectations. Make sure you have a place that is quiet to do their homework and keep their backpack in one place. Perhaps pick the outfit out the night before.
  • Take your kids shopping with you. Get excited about the new school year. If your child sees you are excited, they will be excited.
  • Practice your new routine in advance of the first day of school.

Suicide Awareness and Prevention

Why are we talking suicide prevention in connection to going back to school? Because we have to. More and more children are dying at their own hand.

  • Collier and Lee County schools have experienced a 44-60% increase in serious mental health crises, suicidality and suicide attempts during this time
  • 2nd leading cause of death among 10-34 year olds
  • 10% of students seriously contemplate suicide
  • Concerns regarding spikes in mental health upon return to schools, it’s a vulnerable time
  • Relationships – conflict, loss, bullying, decreased supports
  • Impulsivity-increased stressors-lack of coping skills
  • School-pressure to achieve, learning struggles, lack of sense of belonging
  • The tank is empty
  • Overflowing mental health systems
  • Isolation-suffering in silence
  • Returning to normal may feel un-normal for many

Addressing Suicide Prevention

Youth can have thoughts of suicide when they feel overwhelmed and helpless about situations, disconnected from others and hopeless about their future. Having that awareness is important.

  • How do we minimize household stress as much as possible?
  • Make time to connect with children in a meaningful way with one-on-one time and fun activities
  • Model appropriate and healthy ways to cope with stress. Children learn more from our actions than what we say
  • Give your child space and opportunities to talk
  • Listen, listen, listen. Spend more time listening than talking. Listen without judgment with the intention of understanding.

Suicide Warning Signs

Look for things that are extreme. Some of these signs can be typical adolescent development. Sometimes they will shift friends, preferences and replace things, and that can be typical. It’s when they stop instead of replacing that raises a flag.

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Talking or writing about suicide or wanting to die
  • Good-bye gestures such as giving belongings away
  • Changes in behavior
  • Substance use
  • Decline in hygiene
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Negative mood, irritability, lack of enjoyment in previously enjoyed activities
  • Expressions of hopelessness, being out of control or overwhelmed

Suicide Prevention-Start the Conversation

Look for things that are extreme. Some of these signs can be typical adolescent development. Sometimes they will shift friends, preferences and replace things, and that can be typical. It’s when they stop instead of replacing that raises a flag.

  • Ask how your child is feeling. “I’ve notices lately that you have been ____. I’m concerned. Are you okay?” Use open-ended questions that will elicit responses beyond “yes” or “no”. Instead of using “you” as in “you seem…” you want to use “I” statements. Be nonconfrontational. Using reflective statements like “I hear what you are saying” or “is that correct?” help the child to feel understood.
  • Listen and give opportunities for response and expanding the conversation. “Tell me more about that.”
  • Ask directly. “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” Some people think that asking the question may put the thought of suicide in their mind. The reality is once you ask the question and get a child help, children are usually relieved.
  • Respond. Ask again if your gut tells you to and you feel they are not really opening up. Sometimes you have to ask several times before the child believes you really want to know the answer. If the answer is “yes,” stay calm and reassure your child you will help them through this and immediately seek professional help.

Suicide Prevention-Respond

  • Know your local mental health resources
  • Crisis hotlines (On the back of Collier County student ID badges)
  • Crisis receiving facilities
  • Mobile crisis response unit
  • School-based mental health supports
  • Safety and coping strategies/plans
  • Coping and suicide prevention Apps

Children’s Mental Health Resources

Questions and Answers

Q: What are some early signs of depression in grade school children and how can parents help address them?

A: Look for things that are extreme. Some of these signs can be typical adolescent development. Sometimes they will shift friends, preferences and replace things, and that can be typical. It’s when they stop instead of replacing that raises a flag.

Q: How can parents determine if the children’s behavior is just a phase of it’s actual signs of mental illness?

A: Look for extremes that are persuasive. You can take them for a screening if you have concerns. Professionals can help determine the difference between typical development and mental illness. There are great free screening opportunities through HUGS through NAMI in Collier County. In Lee County if you reach out to your school counselor, they will screen the child and let you know if the school can support or the issue needs additional resources.