When going back to school, mental health changes may occur and students may find that symptoms connected with anxiety and depression worsen. Summer provides a time of relaxation and rejuvenation for children who are in school and relieves the stress of having to perform in class. The academic requirements of school can be particularly stressful on children with mental health disorders, as the chemical imbalances in the brain can make academic performance more difficult to sustain. This increases the normal pressure and stress that school creates and can lead to a mental health crisis, especially when transitioning from a period without school back into school.
While mental health may suffer during the transition from a summer break into the school year, it doesn’t have to. There are several back to school mental health tips that can reduce some of the stress caused by this transition and help to alleviate some of the stress that can be experienced during this time. Most mental health tips for going back to school will involve preparing for the adjustment of returning to classes in advance of the end of summer break. Through careful preparation, parents can make the return to school as easy as possible.
Seasonal Variations in Mental Health Crises
There is a significant connection between mental health crises in school-aged children and whether they are in school or not. One study found that the average number of psychiatric hospital admissions per 100,000 school-aged children dropped from 32 to 22 over the summer months. This change only occurred for school-aged children, and there was no similar drop in psychiatric admissions during the summer for people over 20 years old.
This seasonal variation in mental health crises also showed a significant drop in hospital admissions for school-aged children in December, as would be expected if school was a contributing factor to mental health crises.
Warning Signs to be Aware Of
When a child is about to start or is already starting a mental health crisis, there will be warning signs that can help adults to quickly recognize that a mental health crisis is starting and help the child to receive early treatment. When these early warning signs are recognized and responded to quickly, the mental health crisis can be shortened and less severe.
Common warning signs of a mental health crisis in children can include:
- Increased irritability or sadness
- Excessive fear, including increased nightmares
- Excessive anxiety or worry
- Extreme anger or tantrums
- Use of alcohol or drugs
- Avoiding being around people
- Hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there
- Inability to concentrate or pay attention
- Excessive need to wash or perform certain rituals multiple times a day
- Talking about suicide or death
- Hurting other people or animals
- Damaging property
- Significant changes in sleep patterns
- Significant increase or decrease in appetite
- Losing interest in friends or activities that are normally enjoyed
- Poor performance in school or at a job.
While these signs cover a broad variety of mental health crises and not all signs will be present, the presence of some of these signs may indicate that a mental health crisis is starting.
If you recognize any of these signs in your child you should seek immediate professional help. It will be especially important to monitor for these signs during the week preceding school starting and for the first month of school.
What Parents Can Do to Help
There are several things that parents can do to help their children who are returning to school to ensure their optimal mental health during this stressful period. Interventions that parents can help with are designed to both alleviate stress and allow for early recognition of an escalating mental health issue.
Some back to school tips for parents include:
- Openly Discuss Concerns. Openly giving feedback to your child encourages them to be open with you. Fostering an open channel of communication where feedback can be given both ways without risk of judgement will help you as the parent to recognize early signs of a mental health crisis.
- Pay Attention to Sleeping Habits. Poor sleep may be a sign that a mental health crisis is starting. Poor sleep may also lead to an increased risk of mental health problems. Monitoring your child’s sleep can help to decrease the risk of a mental health crisis or help you to recognize when one is starting.
- Limit Internet Access. The internet can be a stressor, especially in an age when social media is often used for bullying or other activities that are harmful to mental health. Limiting your child’s access to the internet, including access to the internet through video games, can help to avoid mental health deterioration.
- Encourage Participation in Extracurricular Activities. When the focus of your child is exclusively on school, it can worsen the mental health problems that are associated with school. By encouraging participation in other activities, you can help to shift your child’s focus while also providing a pursuit that interests and engages them, creating an outlet for their emotions and energy.
- Practice Healthy Coping Skills. Teach your child healthy coping techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness or finding and talking to a support person when problems arise.
- Reach Out to a Trained Professional. While you can do several things to help your child adjust back to school, children who have a mental health history or who have previously had problems with adjusting to returning to school may require more help than you can give them. In this situation, your child may benefit from meeting with a trained professional and getting treatment beyond the basics.
Gray, Peter. “The Danger of Back to School.” Psychology Today. Aug. 7, 2014. Accessed July 5, 2019. Ruiz, Rebecca. “5 Tips to Help Manage Your Back-to-School Mental Health.” Mashable. Aug. 29, 2018. Accessed July 5, 2019. Ronis, Scott et al. “Seasonality in Mental Health-Related Hospitalizations by Children, Youth and Adults in New Brunswick.” University of New Brunswick. 2016. Accessed July 5, 2019. Mental Health America. “Children’s Mental Health.” 2019. Accessed July 5, 2019.
Gray, Peter. “The Danger of Back to School.” Psychology Today. Aug. 7, 2014. Accessed July 5, 2019.
Ruiz, Rebecca. “5 Tips to Help Manage Your Back-to-School Mental Health.” Mashable. Aug. 29, 2018. Accessed July 5, 2019.
Ronis, Scott et al. “Seasonality in Mental Health-Related Hospitalizations by Children, Youth and Adults in New Brunswick.” University of New Brunswick. 2016. Accessed July 5, 2019.
Mental Health America. “Children’s Mental Health.” 2019. Accessed July 5, 2019.