May was National Mental Health Awareness Month and time to remind people from all walks of life to recognize the importance of prioritizing one’s mental health and wellness. More specifically, as we come to the close of yet another school year, students are eagerly waiting for their summer break to recharge and prepare for the following school year. What is mental health and well-being?
In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control defined mental health as our emotional, psychological and social well-being as comprising mental health. It affects our thoughts, feelings and actions, and influences how we deal with stress, interact with others and make healthy decisions. Mental health is essential throughout all stages of life, from childhood and adolescence to adulthood. Oxford Dictionary posits mental health as a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.
Research shows that anxiety and depression are the two most common mental illnesses that children and young students struggle with. In the United States, mental illnesses are among the most prevalent health conditions, and in a person’s lifetime, more than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder. In a given year, 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness. One in five children currently or at some point in their lives have suffered from a severely debilitating mental illness. One in 25 Americans suffers from a serious mental disorder such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.
Mental illness does not have a single cause. There are a variety of risk factors for mental illness, including: Early adverse life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse, are associated with mental illness (for example, child abuse, sexual assault, witnessing violence).
- Within recent years, social media has been proven to have a strong impact on mental health
- Other ongoing (chronic) medical conditions, such as diabetes or cancer
- Brain biological factors or chemical imbalances
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Experiencing feelings of isolation or loneliness
Anxiety disorders are currently the most prevalent mental illness among adolescents. According to the World Health Organization, 4% of 10- to 14-year-olds and 5% of 15- to 19-year-olds have experienced an anxiety disorder. Most people develop anxiety disorder symptoms before the age of 21.
Fun to a child may be a major indication that they are experiencing depression.
Possibly a lack of training regarding the warning signs is causing these disorders to be overlooked. Children suffering from depression may claim that everything is fine, but they may begin to withdraw or lose interest. Loss of interest in once-appealing activities may be a major indicator that a child is experiencing depressive symptoms. In other circumstances, children may develop apathy toward life. Children may begin to give away their possessions, including once-prized items, because they may no longer believe in the value of the items. Some children may resort to acting out or exhibit violent behavior in extreme circumstances.
According to UNICEF, this fall, most children will have more complicated feelings than usual about returning to school. Many students have been absent from school for the majority of the past 18 months due to COVID-19 containment measures. Some youngsters thrived with increased family time and decreased academic pressure. Others were affected by social isolation and the disorienting disruption of routine. UNICEF has synthesized information on how parents can support their children’s mental health by remaining connected with their children, reducing back-to-school anxiety, and facilitating a successful transition to a new academic year.
- Provide a safe space for children to express their emotions. Reflecting a child’s experience back to them is one of the most essential parenting skills. If your child appears distressed, choose a moment of silence and say, “I’ve noticed a shift in the atmosphere recently. I believe there is more to the situation than you are revealing.” Engaging children in creative pursuits, such as playing and drawing, can help them express challenging emotions in a low-key, supportive setting. Fortunately, there are organizations assigned to different schools to help address this problem. Prevention specialists create spaces for youth to feel supported throughout their time in school.
- Listen more, talk less. It is essential to remain calm, listen to children’s concerns, speak kindly and reassure them, as children frequently take their emotional cues from the adults in their lives. Allow your child to direct the discussion. Consider W.A.I.T. — Why Am I Talking? — prior to speaking.
- Acknowledge that anxiety is perfectly normal. Mention that everyone experiences difficult times from time to time. It is reasonable, especially during a pandemic. Anxiety cannot be seen; worry is a symptom. The ability to tolerate uncertainty is a learned skill. Remind your children that when they have a problem, you will assist them in finding a solution.
- Do not conceal your own anxiety. Always demonstrate healthy stress management techniques. When you are feeling overwhelmed, share this information with your children. Say, “I am not currently handling my stress well.” Remind them that emotions change and that it’s OK to not always be OK.
- Allow children time to adapt. Young children returning to preschool or daycare after spending so much time at home with only immediate family members may take longer to warm up to unfamiliar teachers and caregivers. Wearing a mask keeps us safe but makes it more difficult to express emotions and provide reassurance. Work with your child’s teachers to develop new routines that facilitate the development of strong connections and a smooth transition to school.
- Encourage children to pace themselves. Students who are eager to return to school and see their friends may discover that their new in-person school day is more exhausting than anticipated. Help them incorporate study breaks and free time.
- Address COVID-19 fears truthfully. With pediatric COVID-19 cases on the rise and reports indicating that more young people are battling long COVID-19, it is inevitable that many children will have questions and concerns about returning to school during the pandemic. Determine their concerns and provide direct, age-appropriate responses to their questions. If you do not know the answer, research it together using reputable sources such as the websites of UNICEF and the World Health Organization. We know that COVID has had a hard-hitting impact on children when it comes to academics and social skills. Encourage your children to join clubs, or tutoring to enrich their skills.
- Vaccinate your children if they are at least 12 years old. If you are concerned about your child’s safety during the pandemic, consider if vaccinating them is right for you and your family. If vaccinated, your child may be able to rest easily knowing they are protected against COVID-19 and doing their part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in their community after receiving a vaccination.
- Emphasize self-care. It is essential to consider mental health as a continuum of total health. When a person feels unwell, they should attempt to seek some form of medical attention. If you believe your child could benefit from seeing a therapist, encourage him or her to at least try it once.
Taeylor Stokes is a Shalom Inc. prevention specialist.