Back-to-school can be a time of heightened stress and excitement for kids in normal years, but this year, add in increased health worries and new routines associated with the covid-19 pandemic, and the level of ‘back-to-school anxiety’ is higher than ever. In fact, at Telemynd, we’ve recently seen an uptick in requests for mental health visits for kids and adolescents. So, with families in mind, this article will look at the reasons why back-to-school may cause extra anxiety this year and some actionable ways to address it.
The number of mental health issues in young people has increased in the pandemic
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Pediatrics) found that the number of young people struggling with mental health issues has likely doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels. The study found that 1 in 4 kids are experiencing elevated symptoms of depression and 1 in 5 have higher levels of anxiety. A CDC study found that in 2020, emergency room mental health visits increased 31% for kids ages 12 to 17, and 24% for ages 5 to 11, compared to the same period the prior year.
And it's no wonder. For many young people, the pandemic has increased worries about sickness, family finances, separation from friends, disruption in routine – even coping with grief from loss. A year of remote learning, although necessary for safety, may have taken an emotional toll on many – some may have fallen behind in their studies, or suffered from lack of academic support.
Back-to-school transitions will be harder this year
Most mental health specialists agree that, in general, kids are realizing that the world is not as safe as we all thought it was – and that increases anxiety. Dr. Jennifer Louie, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says, “There’s just anxiety in the air, and I think kids feel that. They are wondering: Are we sure it’s safe to go back (to school)? And are other people safe? And is it safe to touch this?”
To be sure, some kids have enjoyed homeschooling and spending more time with family. But for those who are predisposed to anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, transitioning back to classroom learning this Fall may be harder than ever.
How to help kids deal with back-to-school anxiety
For parents and caretakers, it may feel complicated – on the one hand you want to reassure them that it’s safe to go back to school in-person, while also encouraging them to be cautious, and preparing them to be flexible if rules or situations change.
Here are 5 ways to address additional back-to-school anxiety:
Emphasize safety measures. Talk about how schools have done months of planning to minimize risk and keep everyone safe — and how kids can do their part by following the rules. It's fine to explain that we can never be 100% sure everyone will stay healthy, but that there are measures in place to try to ensure best possible outcomes if people get sick.
Validate their feelings. Validate any worries by acknowledging that, like any new activity, going back to school can be hard, but with time, it will get easier. For younger kids, praise ‘brave’ behaviors, e.g., “I love how willing you were to take the bus this morning.” Make sure they know they aren’t alone - that teachers and administrators are watching out for them and that you’ll deal with any safety and health issues together.
Have a routine. Making sure that your child has a predictable school morning routine can help everyone feel more secure. Try to do things at the same time, the same way every day. And practice problem-solving if issues come up; for example, if they worry they can’t find their way around school, help them think through who to ask for help.
Make sure they get enough sleep and good nutrition. The shift from summer to school-year wake-up times can be challenging for a lot of kids, but lack of sleep can make them more vulnerable to anxiety. To deal with this, consider leaving TV, phone, or laptop outside the bedroom at night. And have lots of healthy snacks and lunch material in the house to ward-off unhealthy eating (which also contributes to stress).
Observe your child's behavior. Watch for signs of depression or anxiety, for example, becoming more withdrawn, angry, or having trouble concentrating. Also watch for physical changes like abdominal or other physical pain - which also can be warning signs. Be sure to regularly and directly ask them how they're feeling. It is also not uncommon for kids who struggle with anxiety and depression to “hold it together” during the school day and have a “meltdown” when they arrive home to release some of the pent up feelings they have kept inside while in school. It is important for parents to be prepared for this type of response and to create space for their child to decompress when they arrive home before trying to engage them about their day. Understanding “why” your child may be acting in a way that is unlike them is the first step in recognizing the signs that they may be struggling with a mental health issue.
When to seek additional help
If you see any of the warning signs mentioned above (and see more here), or if a young person’s worries about school start to interfere with their ability and willingness to attend school or participate in normal activities, like sports, or socializing with peers, consider consulting a licensed behavioral health professional. In some cases, kids may be resisting going back to school because last year’s learning at home “felt” easier than going to school (e.g., kids with a lot of social anxiety, or those with learning disorders may have had an easier time when they could work at their own pace). Mental health professionals can sort out real anxiety and depression symptoms, and provide recommendations to help.
If a young person in your life is showing signs of heightened back-to-school anxiety, consider contacting a mental health professional
With the right mental health support, kids can adjust to school this Fall, make new friends, learn new things, and thrive. If you’re a client, request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today! If you’re a behavioral health provider looking to join our network, see all the benefits and learn how to apply here.