Therapists worry about kids’ mental health returning to school

Soon, kids will be going back to school. But, that doesn’t mean everything will go back to normal.

After a year and half of disruption and uncertainty, kids are about to start the school year with even more disruption and uncertainty.

"I'm so used to being at my bed and not having to interact with people in person and seeing people, which is really weird," said Cori, a student.

"Just being in the hall like that, it just makes me kind of close in on myself. and so that's something that's really scary," added student Ally D.

Cori and Ally D. and Ally W. are some of the lucky ones, as they've found support in a local peer outreach group called Treehouse – and they’re not alone in their search for help. 

Since April of 2020, the number of kids seeking mental health resources in the U.S. has skyrocketed. From April of 2020 to October of 2020, mental health related emergency visits rose 24% for kids ages 5 to 11, and 31% for kids 12 to 17. Those numbers are still holding steady one year later.

"We're definitely seeing an increase in anxiety, an increase in depression, an increase in inattention - to being able to hold an attention span for a class, a group, a therapy session, because kids are out of practice," said therapist Jenny Britton.

So what happens when you send all these kids back to school after such a long pause?  

"I think you're going to see students isolate," said therapist Brandon Jones.

In fact, the message we heard over and over from mental health professionals is that we need to anticipate behavioral issues and academic slides because for most kids, it’s not a matter of if but when.

"They're going to fall behind academically, and unfortunately, some of them may even fall behind as far as resources that they might need that they're not getting at home, whether that's food insecurities, other types of supports, you know, social supports that may come from a counselor or mental health support," Jones said.

So how do we bridge some of those gaps? The answer may lie in questions.

"My hope is that people can engage with more curiosity - Can you tell me what's going on? What's up? What's it feel like for you to be in school today…It’s a little bit more of helping kids pay attention to even how they're showing up or what might be coming out for them. They don't have the same brain development and social emotional awareness that adults do about what might even be happening for them," Britton said.

Cori and Ally come from different backgrounds and have very different experiences, but one thing brought them here: the need to connect. That, experts say, will be the biggest challenge for all of us this school year.

"Try talking to people," Cori said. "It's so hard at the beginning, but it's so rewarding when you actually like when your friends tell you, ‘yeah, I feel the same way and I'm nervous, but we're going to both be there at the same time.’ So it's you're not going to be alone."

"I just wish someone told me, ‘you don't think about it in the long run,’ like it's really just a day to day thing, sometimes hour to hour, minute to minute," Ally W. added. "Not many adults take the time to listen to what we have to say, and so I think I sometimes feel bad for telling them I'm anxious, that I don't feel very comfortable because I understand that they have a lot on their plates. But also, I deserve a voice at the same time."

The biggest takeaway from our therapists is to ask kids questions and resist the urge to steer the conversation. Let the kids talk without judgement or correction.

If the conversation escalates to anger, take a break and then circle back and try to repair the situation - which might mean you owe your kids an apology, or vice versa.

Also, when your kids do act out, try to get to the bottom of what's causing the behavior, and not get hung up on the behavior itself. Ask for help when you need it so kids see that real life gets messy and it's OK to ask for help.