With record heat waves sweeping across the country and the dog days of summer upon us, it’s hard to believe that school is right around the corner. But in just a few days students will be sliding into their seats and desks, gathering assignments and gearing up for another scholastic year.
For many, heading back to school after a summer off can be fun and filled with opportunity. Whether it’s connecting with friends after summer break, getting new clothes, books and supplies, attending social gatherings, after-school activities or simply enjoying the promise of a new beginning, back-to-school can be an exciting and inspiring time for some teens.
But for the 20% of youth aged 13-18 dealing with a mental health condition, going back to school can be a daunting, stressful endeavor.
Here are a few mental health tips to safeguard teens in a transitional and sometimes trying time of year:
1. Watch Out for Warning Signs
A little stress and nervousness at the start of the school year is to be expected, however looking out for symptoms both in terms of duration and severity can be an important tool for adequately addressing mental health issues before they become problematic.
Prolonged symptoms like chronic stomach aches, frequent insomnia, marked change in appetite and increased irritability can all be early signposts for anxiety, depression and acute stress. If reaching out to peers, parents, counselors or teachers feels too overwhelming or intimidating, teens can consider utilizing an online assessment tool to gauge where their mental health is at, such as Mental Health America’s Screening Tool.
“Parental modeling is especially important for teens’ back-to-school mental health, for everything from how we utilize smartphones and screen time, to how we manage our stress,” says Jonathan Sanchez, The Director of Development and Education at Paradigm Treatment Centers.
2. Get Informed
Never before has there been better, easier or more robust access to mental health resources for teens and youth than right now. And one of the most effective ways for teens to find empowerment and hope is via education, information and knowledge.
A plethora of organizations, government agencies and advocacy groups offer wonderful information, videos and tools on their websites. Whether it’s advocacy, tools, tips, or research that you’re looking for, you can find it online.
Here are just a few helpful venues to consider: National Alliance on Mental Illness, JED Foundation, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, National Eating Disorders Association, Born This Way Foundation, The Trevor Project, and Crisis Text Line, to name a few.
3. Minimize the Screen Time
As empowering and unifying as online resources can be, screen time can do more harm than good for many teens facing the uncertainties and stresses of a new school year.
Social media can be particularly detrimental to mental health when teens become targets for bullies, or when the pressure to live up to the perceived lifestyles of peers gets to be too much. This can also impact sleep hygiene, which is especially important for adolescents.
Consider doing weekly digital detoxes as a family, and limiting screen time to set hours during the week.
4. Build Your Toolbox
As with anything in life, mental health is optimized by a strong and dynamic set of techniques for coping with thoughts, feelings and behaviors that can challenge our feelings of inner peace and well-being.
It can begin quite simply with some self-directed questioning: what works for me when I’m feeling down? How is this feeling showing up in my body? When I feel stressed, what other emotions can I name? How is my breathing?
These questions can be a great jumping off point for pinpointing coping strategies you can easily access and utilize. Moreover, with increased awareness, teens can gain tremendous self-confidence, self-acceptance and self-love.
5. Self-care, Self-care, Self-care!
The term gets bandied about all the time, but what does self-care really mean?
Self-care can encompass anything from getting a good night’s sleep, drinking a cup of herbal tea to reading a wonderful book, to simply taking time out of every day to practice mindful breathing.
Teaching teens to find the self-care strategies that work best for them can help with regulating emotions, gaining self-awareness and building confidence and social skills.