Cynthia Persily, PhD, RN, FAAN
Dr. Persily is the CEO of Highland Hospital in Charleston, WV
It’s hard to believe that it’s back to school time already. At our house, we’re sending two kids back to college. At many homes across our state, parents are sending kids to school for the first time, or sending kids to a new school. The stressors abound in times of transition such as these. The stress for parents, for families, and for kids is incredible. Getting organized, developing new routines, becoming used to new schools and teachers, while managing homework, sports, and other activities is enough to stress even the strongest among us. For those of us who are sending kids away for college, we’re trying to help manage these issues from afar. Some of us might be a little sad with no kids at home. It can be overwhelming for anyone.
Thankfully, in recent years, schools have become much more attuned to the issues of mental health in students. Many colleges have wellness programs that include emotional and mental health education and intervention. In West Virginia, many teachers have been trained in Mental Health First Aid, teaching them to recognize mental health issues in their schools, and to know where to get help. As parents though, how do we tell the difference between the normal stress of back to school and a mental health issue that needs attention?
You should absolutely seek immediate attention for your child through an emergency room or Highland Hospital if you become aware that your child is:
- Having thoughts or making plans of killing or hurting them self or another person. If your child is showing signs of suicidal or self-injurious thoughts, seek immediate assistance. If you are not present or able to get them right away, ask them calmly to promise you that they will not act on those thoughts until you are with them or can get them help. It is a well-known phenomenon that most people will honor these “promise contracts” for a defined period of time.
- Hearing voices or seeing things that no one else can hear or see
- Experiencing unexplainable changes in thinking, speech, or writing
- Being overly suspicious or fearful
- Showing a drastic and sudden decline in school performance
- Having sudden personality changes that are bizarre or out of character
Your child may experience other symptoms of mental health issues that are less urgent, but still deserve discussion and attention. These symptoms might include:
- Excessive irritability or restlessness
- Withdrawing from peers or other activities they previously enjoyed
- Inability to eat or overeating
- Feeling sad or worthless
- Unable to sleep
- Change in school performance
In this case, where do you start to get help? Talk to school personnel or your primary care provider. They can help to assess the situation, and point you in the right direction. Valuable resources for back to school mental health including a Toolkit for parents and kids can be found here.
Finally, make sure you take care of yourself during this stressful time. You may be feeling some emotions yourself, including fear, anxiety, and sadness. Seek out support for yourself—including talking to friends and loved ones who have had similar experiences, talking to school personnel, joining a support group, using resources such as Employee Assistance programs through your employer, or visiting with a mental health professional.
Let’s help our kids transition back to school in a healthy way—best wishes for a successful school year!