We know that students are struggling with their mental health. Here's how you can help
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While most children across the country have returned to school by now, this school year has not been as normal as everyone hoped. Many schools have been closed because of outbreaks of Covid-19. Other schools offer remote learning options. Many students are already anxious and feeling uneasy about this school year.
"Teacher, kids, everybody thought we were going to come back this year and everything would be back to normal," says Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and a senior vice president at Array Behavioral Care. "And now it's not. How do we prepare children for another potentially difficult year?"
In recent weeks, schools have been asking her this question a lot. What can you do? Christian-Brathwaite, along with other mental health professionals, shared some tips with NPR that parents, teachers, and all adults can use in order to help their children cope better during these difficult times.
1. Adults, look after your health first.
"There are no healthy children without healthy adults," says Christian-Brathwaite.
She says it's crucial for parents to look after their mental health so that they can better manage any situation.
Mental Health: More Children Struggle with Mental Health Challenges Due to The Pandemic. Listen 6:44 6;44
Adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Vera Feuer advises that you do things that will help your resilience. She is the associate vice president for school mental healthcare at Northwell Health.
Feuer recommends that you do calming activities such as yoga and meditation. She says that any activity, such as dancing, hiking, or sports, can be helpful. She says it will help you to manage your emotions and keep calm during stressful times. You can also teach your children or students these valuable skills.
Feuer adds that parents and kids should be able to see that everyone experiences anxiety and stress in their lives. The goal is not to get rid of it but to learn how to manage it.
Christian-Brathwaite recommends that calm activities such as meditation be included in the school day at the beginning of the day or during transitions between classes.
She says that even a simple practice of mindfulness or meditation can reduce our stress response. It helps kids get out of the fight, flight, or freeze state, and also helps adults.
2. Talk to your children about their concerns and validate them.
Talking to children about emotions and mental health is important before they reach crisis points.
Feuer says that families should provide open spaces for children to express their concerns. This generation is changing their views on mental health. There is also a positive shift in stigma in that kids are more open to talking about mental health issues. Adults must continue to support this."
Dena Trujillo is the interim CEO at Crisis Text Line. She has created a toolkit called Mental Health School Supplies that helps kids deal with these difficult times.
She says that while some of these things may seem simple, they are really important.
Feuer says that parents and teachers should listen to their children's concerns about school or infection. Then, they can teach their kids tools to manage anxiety and stress like mindfulness, yoga, meditation, and meditation.
You can even practice these skills with your family.
Short Wave in The Pandemic: Children Face a Mental Health Crisis. Listen 13:57 13.57
"Combining that with family time to give parents the opportunity to implement these practices, but to open the door for dialogue," says Christian-Brathwaite.
She suggests that you should be aware of any changes in your sleeping or eating habits.
Just being aware of these behavioral changes: Are there any decreases or increases in eating habits? Are there any changes in the amount or frequency of exercise? What are their friends? What are they up to?
These are all signs that a child is having an emotional crisis.
3. Provide extra support for students and teachers
"I really recommend that you just assume that everyone has experienced some level of pain," says Chirstian-Brathwaite. "Every child you interact with has some level trauma."
Children's emotional and physical pain often manifests in the form behavioral problems. These include disruptive behavior in school or inability focus and learning.
She advises against disciplining disruptive students.
"I'm really asking schools not to implement suspensions or detentions immediately and to really take a more trauma sensitive lens," says Christian-Brathwaite. Instead of focusing on their behavior and disciplining them, or sending them out to school, we should focus on what is behind it. What is the source of this pain? What caused this child's behavior? What has happened at home to cause this child's misbehavior?"
She suggests that school administrators adopt a similar approach to teachers. She suggests that school administrators ask teachers if they are having difficulty or are late for class.
4. Encourage children to embrace structure and routine
Structure and routine are good friends in a world of uncertainty.
Trujillo says that a schedule is helpful. Structure is important when you are trying to adapt to a new way of life. You can keep track of your schedule by writing it down or using it as a calendar to help you feel more in control and stability.
Feuer recommends working with your child ahead of time to create a structure. Stick to it. She advises that you be consistent.
She suggests that children who are worried about past stressors should "collaboratively problem solve."
Feuer says, "Just talking with kids about what they [can] and can't do if that happened and how they manage it and how they talk about the skills they can use to manage it."
5. Where to look for help?
Trujillo suggests that parents should know where to go for help if their child is in crisis or emotional distress.
For children, their teachers and families, the Crisis Text Line is the best option. Text HOME to 741741 to connect to a counselor.
You can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 if you have a child who is struggling with suicide thoughts.