As the School Year Begins—How Do We Plant the Seeds of Good Mental Health?

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September 17, 2015

With the start of the school year,  students, teachers, and parents usually experience a mix of hope and anxiety as they anticipate the school year and the challenges and opportunities ahead. Students benefit from having tools for handling the inevitable stresses that the school year will bring.  Involvement in extracurricular activities such as sports and the visual and performing arts can provide an important sense of belonging as well as an effective form of stress management. Having positive social relationships with peers can also provide a buffer from the stress that the school year brings. 

Acceptance is perhaps never so acutely desired as during the middle school and high school years. 

It is also a time when the pain of not feeling accepted can escalate to the point of self-harming behaviors and the possibility of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Yet teenagers may be reluctant to share any of these thoughts with their parents, teachers, or doctors. So …… what can be done? Sometimes we need to look for another angle to reach out to kids – in a way that doesn’t leave them feeling vulnerable. Some roundabout questions that kids may be more willing to answer and may lead to some productive conversations include: 

  1. What kind of support is there at your school for kids who don’t fit the norm? 
  2. If you were to picture an imaginary student who might be bullied at your school, can you describe that student to me? 
  3. Do you have a school counselor? Would you ever choose to go talk with your counselor if you were having a problem? 
  4. Do you have a Gay-Straight Alliance at your school? If so, what you do think about it? 
  5. If you had a friend who was experiencing a problem that worried you: ie cutting, drinking, drugs, eating disorder, thoughts of suicide, etc. what would you do? 

When engaging in a conversation with adolescents, ask them what they are enjoying most (and least) about school. Invite them to tell you about the friends they are spending the majority of their time with at lunch or after school. Then ask them to identify one thing that they would change about their school if they had the power to do so.  Be attuned to any clues from their answers that they may be experiencing anxiety, depression, and/or bullying. If there has been a significant change in the family structure such as a separation or divorce, adolescents often long to have someone to talk to about how they are feeling about all the changes going on around them. Counseling can be a lifeline for hurting teens. Ask a trusted doctor, caring teacher, or a close family friend to recommend a good counselor for adolescents. Sometimes students can benefit from a mix of individual, family, and group therapy.  By connecting youth with support resources, you can help plant the seeds of good mental health!