How Can We Support Young People’s Mental Health As They Return To School?

Labor Day is fast approaching, which means a return to school for many. The beginning of the school year is a time filled with excitement, anticipation, nervousness, and other emotions.

But this year, beyond the normal stresses, we face the uncertainties of an ongoing global pandemic. Most young people and parents I’ve spoken with are feeling more anxious than usual.

Some families have been managing with homeschooling for the past 18 months. Others worry about their unvaccinated kids becoming sick. Still others worry about mask mandates.

With fewer distractions and less bullying, remote learning has helped some children thrive. But others may have fallen behind because they’ve been flying under the radar or have been exposed to added stressors at home.

As parents, we face pressure to make the “right” parenting choices, especially now that we’re dealing with our children’s physical and emotional health. These uncharted waters can feel overwhelming.

Amid this turmoil, I’ve tried to be a light that helps to guide my kids safely to shore. It’s a lot to take on, as the tides keep changing. I manage by being open and honest with my kids. We can’t control what young people hear, so it’s important to present them with the information they need to stay safe. Keep it simple. Explain your decisions. And spell out your expectations for your children.

For example: “Yes, you can go to an outdoor gathering with a few friends, but I won’t let you go to that party because it’s too risky” or “I expect you to wear your mask when we visit grandma because we want to keep her safe.”

Over this past year and a half, adults and kids alike have been feeling unsafe and unstable. As children transition to re-enter school, expect some distress and worry during the first few weeks. These feelings may be intensified now when children are being asked to do many new (or forgotten) things all at once. Energy levels and emotional reserves will be strained. During this pandemic, many young people have had limited in-person social interaction. Required to re-learn how to navigate social dynamics in person, kids may feel emotionally drained.

Everyone handles stress differently. But there are some common things to watch for: Some kids may have physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches. Some may seem more agitated, while others may become more withdrawn. Notice the changes. Some of this is to be expected. 

But as adults, we need to listen first. Don’t jump in fast and try to fix things or try to put their concerns into perspective. Step one must be to let the young person be heard. Only then, discuss ways to alleviate stress and to strengthen coping skills.

But what if there’s a major change in behavior that doesn’t dissipate after a few weeks? What if your child withdraws more and more, or refuses to engage in typical activities, or appears progressively more distressed? That’s a red flag, and parents may want to consider seeking help at that point.

Fun back to school rituals can create a sense of normalcy into the school transitional process.  For example, my kids love to choose first day-of-school outfits and some fun, colorful folders.

I’ve also started limiting screen time and getting them into bed earlier than our summer routine.

If you’re concerned about a student, reach out to their school or call the Association for Mental Health and Wellness’ Helpline at 631-471-7242, ext. 1388, or ext. 1389 for Spanish.

In addition, the New York State Office of Mental Health offers a video series entitled, “Back to School 2021” aimed at parents, caregivers, and students. It addresses concerns they’ve heard from students and families about going back to school while still facing the challenges of COVID-19.

Can We Move Beyond Describing Actions to Take Care of Our Mental Health Courageous?

Simone BilesAs I read news that Simone Biles had withdrawn from competing in the all-around competition in the Olympic Games, several thoughts came to mind.  I felt admiration for this young, black, female athlete, who was prioritizing her mental health needs above pursuit of Olympic Gold. I’m thankful that she took a stand and brought more awareness to just how important mental health is.

The announcement about Biles came on the heels of other females athletes making similar decisions to prioritize their mental health. Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old tennis star who is the world’s highest-paid female athlete, withdrew from the French Open after being fined for declining interviews to protect her mental wellbeing and Sha’Carri Richardson, a sprinter, was suspended from the USA Track and Field team for smoking cannabis while processing the grief of her biological mother’s death.

In the ensuing days, reading support for Simone Biles, I was pleased that so many people were championing her decision to focus on her emotional health. For a moment, I felt as though we rounded a corner in history, where mental health will be viewed at the level of importance that it should be.  But there is so much more to take from this moment in history.  We need to also consider the enormous pressure that young athletes face and at what cost.  But for Simone Biles, the pressures were amplified.

Yes, Simone Biles had the pressure of being the GOAT (greatest gymnast of all time) on her small frame’s shoulders, but even more, she had the added pressure of being the face of a movement against sexual assault within the gymnastic community, and of being a black woman. The attention given to Simone over that past five years and her ability to captivate the world in understanding the trauma she and her teammates faced, seems to suggest that her duty moved beyond her fellow gymnastics to a broader community of survivors. 

I hope that this strong, talented, black woman finds the peace and health that she deserves.  I hope that other survivors find encouragement to take care of their emotional needs. I hope that people who are struggling with their mental health seek support and space to heal. I hope we can get to a place where Simone Biles would be seen as extraordinary for her talent, but ordinary for taking care of mental health. 

Biles certainly has encouraged us to talk about mental health and not to simply “push through it.”  I urge you to take her example and care of yourself, connect with others, and ask for help. We all need to prioritize our health.

Anniversary Reactions Are Real, And Common

Thoughtful man in the living roomYesterday, as we hit the one-year mark since the COVID-19 shutdown, I started to think about anniversaries. Have you ever felt a sense of sadness from out of the blue, only to look at the calendar and realize that your feeling corresponds with the anniversary of some unhappy or jarring event?

On March 11, 2020, the coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a pandemic. The twelve months that followed have been marked by uncertainty, fear, scarcity, and loss. We’ve been reminded that life is short and can change on a dime.  “How could this be happening?” and “When will end?” have been common thoughts.  Going to the grocery store, for example, quickly came to require various precautions no one thought we’d ever need. While the anxiety we were feeling had a palliative effect, an eerie sense of loss still seemed to somehow surround us.

During the first few months, I struggled to keep those around me feeling safe and productive. And I found some bright spots, and maybe you did too: more time with my kids, more walks to the beach, and less time in my car.

Yet those silver linings stood in sharp contrast to the emotional stresses that seemed to persistently arise from the odd spectrum of threats and disruptions all around us.

As we look back over the year, many dates along the way may hold significance for you. Maybe it was the date of a job loss, or the date someone you love became ill, or the time you had last spent in-person with a loved one. And merely thinking of those anniversary dates are all but certain to trigger a memory – and maybe a painful one.

Triggers may come from out of the blue around the time of an anniversary. They may happen while we’re at work, at home, or relaxing. On the anniversary of a traumatic event, people often experience a re-occurrence of some or all of the feelings they had experienced at the time of the event. This common syndrome is called an “anniversary reaction.”

Anniversary reactions can be initiated by anything associated with the original trauma, including the season of the year, a particular date, or even the hour of the day. These thoughts, feelings, and reactions can be upsetting, so it’s normal to have strong reaction. Healing from trauma takes time, and healing from COVID-19 is complicated by the fact that we are still living through it.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or depressed, please know that this is a normal way to react to today’s often-unimaginable events. Healing can happen, but it takes time and support. If your reactions get worse or disrupt your life, consider talking to a trained professional who understands these reactions. They are skilled at finding effective coping tools – the kind of tools that will unleash your inner resilience.

The Association for Mental Health and Wellness, a NY Project Hope local crisis counseling provider, helps Suffolk County residents understand their reaction and emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through an emotional support helpline, educational materials, and trusted referrals, NY Project Hope provides support so that people can manage the changes brought on by COVID-19.  If you, or someone you know, needs help, call our helpline at 631-471-7242 ext. 1800.

Everyone Has a Personal History That Led Them to Where They Are Today   

LincolnYou shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

On Presidents’ Day, I’m remembering the first book I ever read about Abraham Lincoln. I was a first-grader assigned to read a biography about a hero, and then write a report on it. 

The cover showed an awkward-looking boy in ill-fitting overalls. He was carrying an axe over one shoulder and a tied-up stack of books over the other.

I couldn’t believe this gangly boy would one day be the stately, top-hatted Lincoln familiar to all. While I wasn’t exactly “judging a book by its cover,” I’d only perceived Lincoln as a fully realized adult – and as a dignified president. I hadn’t focused on his life’s formative experiences.  

We might not think about Lincoln’s many disadvantages, setbacks and tragedies, such as his limited early education, his prior electoral defeats, the death of his 11-year-old son, and his battle with depression.

Similarly, we often judge people based upon their present status. But everyone has a personal history that led them to where they are today.    

Many people with fully developed cognitive skills overlook this. We judge a person based upon the way that person “presents” at this moment. Indeed, entire systems of care have done this for centuries. 

We set forth to treat people struggling with psychiatric challenges, with homelessness, with a criminal history, or with suicidal thoughts. But we so often don’t take into account the experiences that had brought that person here before us.

We zero in on the person’s shortcomings and failures. We start to think that their present travails fully define their character.

This outlook lowers our expectations for their future – and can perpetuate care systems that reinforce the cycle of adverse experiences people face.

There’s a different way. 

If we view individuals as the sum of their past experiences, if we take time to “read the pages of their book,” we may discover a history of neglect, loss, or other trauma that had never been properly worked through. 

This approach changes the way we “treat” that person. By focusing on healing from past trauma, and by harboring genuine hope for the future, we can move beyond the constraints of the moment. We can help people write a promising, new chapter in their life stories.

There was much more to Lincoln than the top hat covering his head. And when it comes to understanding someone’s life story, we should dig deeper – and not just “judge a book by its cover.”