These are some of the reasons for an uptick in anxiety, depression and other behavioral health conditions among K-12 students, according to Wisconsin-based pediatrics professionals.
“This is yet another school year that’s starting off a little rocky because we’re still looking for the new normal,” Linda Hall, director of the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health, said. “The disruptions kids experienced when they were doing partially or completely virtual school … have not been healed yet.”
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Establishing strong foundations when the goalpost continues to shift has created a unique set of challenges since the pandemic upended everyday life. That struggle is especially accentuated for children and teenagers across the country. According to the 2022 Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which looks at state trends in children’s well-being, anxiety and depression are on the rise among Wisconsin’s youth. This is especially true for young people of color.
As parents, students and educators prepare for the coming school year, it’s tempting to minimize the importance of mental health in the hustle of back-to-school shopping, but mental health experts say starting the year with a stronger understanding of emotional well-being will ultimately improve the quality of life for students — and parents, too.
Marcia Slattery, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of UW Anxiety Disorders Program, described the general anxieties of returning to school, which run the gamut of uncertainties from going into a new grade, having a new teacher and new peers and undergoing a harder course load.
Slattery said these unknowns generate “negative expectations and negative worries,” which are common. But COVID-19 has made each subsequent return to school distinct, and the residual effects of the years of isolation continue their toll on students’ developing skills.
Meanwhile, as schools continue to feel the effects of staffing shortages, students are experiencing losses where they hadn’t expected them before, said Julie Incitti, the school social work consultant with Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. That can look like a student’s favorite club no longer having an advisor or a larger classroom size leading to less individual attention, Incitti said.
Another distressing unknown, Slattery said, comes from the escalating mass shooting events in the United States. Worry over becoming a victim of gun violence is further enforced by lockdown drills and code black — the act of locking the door, turning the lights off and hiding.
“When you think about COVID and school shootings, they’re random, especially the shootings, and you can’t do anything to prepare,” Slattery said. “They’re so random and so potentially catastrophic. They’re having to learn very different skills relative to what adults had to when we were in grade school and high school.”
Although the challenges are great, here are some ways to enhance and fortify students’ mental well-being in the coming school year.
Communicating the unknowns
One consequence of the pandemic, Slattery has observed, is that children and young adults feel increasingly inadequate next to their peers. Depressive thoughts eke their way in as kids ask themselves whether others will like them and if they can even connect to somebody in as big of a place as a school setting.
In other words, two years of being socially disconnected, Slattery said, has shrunk their confidence.
“That, to me, is one of the more common reasons why kids have been feeling more sad and more down. It’s as if they’re still alone,” Slattery said. “They don’t feel good enough compared to other kids and they just feel very uncomfortable trying to figure out how to fit in.”
Isolation leads to more isolation, Slattery said, because it comes with negative thoughts and negative expectations, a combination that can often snowball.
Throughout the pandemic, the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health ran a series of listening sessions with young people to better ascertain their needs. By and large, students wrote that they wished more adults had “comfortable, simple conversations with them” during the school day, Hall said.
Much work has been done around alcohol and drug awareness through Wisconsin Department of Health’s Small Talks initiative, Hall said. She emphasized the same can be done to promote mental health awareness.
“They’d like to be able to just talk to a teacher, maybe another staff member, and have multiple people at school that they feel they can comfortably talk to about (mental health),” Hall said.
Parents and guardians can serve as active listeners, and these conversations can happen on a routine basis. Slattery recommended establishing a time to “talk less and listen more,” whether that means in the car, near bedtime or before homework.
Consistency here is important, Slattery said, “otherwise it feels awkward and abnormal for them.”
Incitti, from DPI, suggested parents ask their children open-ended questions and to communicate with school mental health professionals or their child’s primary care physicians if they’re concerned about their child’s behaviors.
Incitti advised against waiting until behaviors are critical before communicating to a mental health professional, due to the long waiting list to enroll students in school-based counseling.
“It can take three months to get connected to a community mental health professional, so it’s important for students or for parents to recognize what the warning signs of mental health challenges look like,” Incitti said.
Building routines around the knowns and problem solving the unknowns
Between the pandemic, mass shootings and the heaviness of the news cycle, predictability has been thrown for a loop. Its part of why establishing routine can be so important, Slattery said.
“Having predictability helps the brain calm because there’s a sense of mastery in being prepared,” Slattery said.
This can look like, but is not limited to, setting up specific times for eating meals, participating in extracurriculars, doing homework and getting ready for bed.
Hall suggested parents sit down with their child and look through the extracurricular activities that might be appealing to them. Research from the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health suggests that cultivating positive relationships through activities can offset the risk of mental health concerns.
“Being involved in extracurricular activities makes a difference in anxiety and depression. It doesn’t have to be sports. It can be all kinds of things,” Hall said.
A good night’s sleep is of singular importance to mental health and executive functions, experts say, and an established set of routines can help nurture this crucial restorative time.
Routine can also help with problem-solving, Slattery said. One way she works with parents and children is to take a blank sheet of paper, fold it down the middle, and write down the child’s worries on one side and solutions to that worry on the other.
“It makes them think more rationally about: how I could solve this, who I could go to, what things might help,” Slattery said. “And they can look at that and continue to have it in the room or review it ahead of time so that they’re feeling like ‘I’ve got a plan. I’m ready.'”
Accepting and celebrating children
Chief among the concerns students are bringing up with counselors is a lack of understanding, Incitti said, whether that sense of alienation is due to having a marginalized identity, struggling with basic needs or experiencing loss and grief.
“There’s so many different reasons why students would come for extra help,” Incitti said,
Hall said the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health is working with around 200 people from networks across the state to address barriers to accessing mental health so that more students from every walk of life can get the care they need to thrive throughout the school year.
Of the barriers most concerning to Hall, she says that the wait time to see a counselor can take six weeks or longer for students, and just because a student gets an appointment, that counselor may not have the cultural competence to work with them.
Additionally, some kids don’t have health insurance or, if they do through their parents’ insurance, high deductibles make it all the more cumbersome to get mental health care.
But much like the blank sheet of paper folded down the middle, where worries exist, ideas can be generated on the other side.
Peer-led groups, such as Sources of Strength, can give kids the tools they need to thrive through frank and open conversations.
And across Wisconsin, students can find youth mental health groups where they can learn about existing program models and, potentially, initiate a youth mental health group of their own.
But some of the work can begin at home.
In students who identify as LGBTQ, Incitti said, the presence of an accepting parent can reduce suicide attempts by 40%. And in trans youth, she said, ignoring a child’s requested pronouns and names can make them twice as likely to attempt suicide.
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Normalizing feelings like anxiety, Slattery said, can be very powerful, too, especially if it’s followed with mental health literacy.
“When we’re anxious, we try to push it away. But if, instead we say it’s OK to feel anxious and here are things we can do when the anxiety does come up, that’s important for us to teach, too,” Slattery said.
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Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-CENTRAL WISCONSIN. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at [email protected] or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.