Going back to school is stressful enough.
But entering the third year of the pandemic amid gun violence in schools, harsh political rhetoric and economic uncertainty are weighing on children who are experiencing an uptick in anxiety, depression and other behavioral health conditions, 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,” said Linda Hall, director of the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health. “The disruptions kids experienced when they were doing partially or completely virtual school … have not been healed yet.”
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Here are some ways to enhance students’ mental well-being in the coming school year.
Communicate the unknowns and take time to listen
One consequence of the pandemic is that kids feel increasingly inadequate next to their peers. Marcia Slattery, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of UW Anxiety Disorders Program, said two years of being socially disconnected 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 because it comes with negative thoughts and negative expectations, a combination that can often snowball.
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.
Build consistent routines around the knowns
Between the pandemic, mass shootings and the heaviness of the news cycle, predictability has been thrown for a loop. It’s part of why establishing routine can be so important.
“Having predictability helps the brain calm because there’s a sense of mastery in being prepared,” Slattery said.
This can look like 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,” she 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.
Use problem solving when faced with the unknowns
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.'”
Some solutions to addressing a child’s mental health issue require more than what a single parent can provide. 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 at school, such as Sources of Strength, can give kids the tools they need to thrive through frank and open conversations. 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.
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But some of the work can begin at home. 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,” she said.
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.