The Weight on Our Children's Shoulders is A Lot More Than We Think
Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders are increasingly diagnosed in school-age children, with symptoms readily experienced by young adults in college. In 2022, 15.08% of children aged 12 to 17 reported suffering at least one major depressive episode in the previous year, an increase of 306,000 from the year before. This article will help you understand how school affects mental health, spot symptoms of poor mental health in your children, understand which treatment options are available, and how to seek help.
The severity of these depressive episodes, alongside anxiety symptoms and other mental health issues, often significantly impairs the child’s ability to function at home, in the classroom, and social settings. It is estimated that between 50 and 80% of children do not receive the mental health care they require, thus severely hampering their ability to learn effectively.
Several instantly recognizable symptoms of poor mental health challenges are experienced by children, which often manifest themselves in achieving low grades and becoming withdrawn or disruptive in class.
These symptoms include:
- Low concentration.
- Low mood.
- Weight changes.
- Complaints of physical pain such as headaches and stomach aches.
Any, or a combination of all of these symptoms, makes it difficult to focus on schoolwork, resulting in students gaining inferior grades. However, it is important to note that high achievers often display impaired mental well-being as they experience stress, anxiety, and the pursuit of perfectionism in the quest for outstanding grades.
Children struggling with mental health can be prone to irritability and unusually emotional outbursts. Sometimes they will display aggressive behavior or boredom, which can become disruptive to their peers. These children often find themselves in trouble with teachers, picking up punishments such as detentions or being isolated to reduce disruption to their peers.
Many children experiencing mental health issues will find ways of skipping school. Stress and anxiety often manifest as acute physical ailments, such as headaches or stomach aches, as the body tries to cope with the challenges of fitting into peer groups, workloads, and social pressures.
Treatment for mental health issues in children traditionally comes via one of two methods or a combination. These are:
- Talking therapies.
Talking therapies will most regularly be a form of psychotherapy, which comes in many different guises for children. The form of therapy will depend firmly on the symptoms and condition diagnosed within the child. However, all therapies offered include parental involvement within the treatment, providing the child with skills to help manage their symptoms that require practice at home and in school, and tracking measures of progress over time to chart improvements in the child’s mental health.
Types of talking therapy that is available for children include:
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), helps children understand the thoughts and emotions that drive their behaviors and how to challenge engrained thought processes to change unhelpful behaviors.
- Counseling, where a trained counselor helps children cope with and overcome life challenges.
Some medical professionals may prescribe a course of anti-depressants to help balance the release of serotonin in the child’s brain. This will usually be prescribed in conjunction with a course of talking therapy, and the child is always carefully monitored and reviewed throughout the medication.
How to Seek Help
If you’re unsure whether what you see in your child needs support, speaking to people who interact with them regularly is beneficial. Chat with their friends, and talk to their school teachers to understand how school affects mental health.
A good starting point is to speak with your child’s pediatrician or healthcare provider to describe the behaviors you and others have observed. They will be able to provide you with advice and, if they believe it appropriate, refer them to a children’s mental health professional with expertise and experience in treating children with mental health problems.
If you need assistance immediately, you can find local mental healthcare providers in your area by calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) or using their online Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.
Asking your child’s mental healthcare provider the following questions will help you and your child build trust with them and reassure you that they will receive the best quality care.
- Do you use research-based treatments?
- Are parents involved in treatment? If so, how?
- Is there “homework” between sessions?
- How will progress be tracked?
- How long will treatment last?
How to Support Your Child’s Mental Health
Understanding how school affects mental health begins at home. Every parent has a part to play in ensuring their child has a safe space to feel vulnerable and talk about any worries, concerns, and anxieties they might have. These tips help create that space at home:
Take a few minutes out of your day to sit quietly with them without distractions such as phones or TV. Ask them how they’re doing to encourage them to get used to talking about their feelings. Listen and be sympathetic to their concerns.
Pay special attention to their emotions and behaviors. Try to help them work through their difficulties with kindness and understanding.
Show interest in their life. Asking questions about school and their hobbies shows them that they are important to you and helps their feelings of self-worth.
Encourage your child to pursue any interests they might have. Whether a creative pursuit, such as drawing, playing a musical instrument, or playing sports, helps facilitate an environment where they can indulge their passions.
Listening to and validating what your child says and feels will make them feel valued. This contributes to building a safe space where they can come to you with worries.