Back to School in 2021: An Emotional Roller Coaster

Typically going back to school in the fall is both exciting and stressful for students. It is a time filled with the excitement to see friends but also with the anxiety and anticipation of not knowing what the year will bring. However, this coming school year will be anything but typical. Following the “Year of the Pandemic,” so much is unknown.

By Howard Olshansky, JFS Executive Director

While most students were back in school at the end of last school year, the entire year was tumultuous. As we approach another school year, it is uncertain whether things will really be back to normal. There is some anxiety around who is and who isn’t vaccinated. Questions about masks and virus variants remain. At a time when anxiety and mental health issues for teens have escalated, there is concern about how students may handle these uncertainties.

According to an April article in “Psychiatry Advisor,” mental health issues were already on the rise with youth prior to the pandemic. Survey results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show increasing rates of U.S. high school students experiencing persistent sadness or hopelessness (from approximately 26% in 2009 to 37% in 2019), serious contemplation of suicide (from 14% to 19%), suicide planning (from 11% to 16%), and suicide attempts (from 6% to 9%).

Early findings indicate that these issues are being further exacerbated by the current crisis, with individuals with preexisting psychological problems at higher risk. The results show increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder among youth of various age groups.

The concerns are not limited to middle and high school students. Children in elementary school have also been negatively affected by the pandemic and virtual learning. Learning development may have been delayed, and previously learned social behaviors may have been forgotten.

Compounding the issue is the fact that our school systems are significantly understaffed to provide student support services. In Mecklenburg County, the staffing for psychologists, social workers, and counselors is less than 50% of what is considered best practice, which means that if students contact a professional at school for emotional support, there is a good chance they may not get the attention they need.

Dr. Neha Chaudhary, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, developed some tips on how to alleviate some of the anxiety of returning to school:

It’s good to plan ahead. As much as possible, learn protocols and routines for your child’s school. The more they know, the less anxious they will be.

Let’s talk about our worries. The more your children share what they are worried about, the more you can help them plan for how to deal with the situation.

Talking it out may also reveal other issues you can plan for.

Anticipate some anxiety and nerves. Acknowledging that it is OK and normal to be anxious will help assure your children that there is nothing wrong with them. It also opens up the opportunity to discuss ways to alleviate their anxiety. Talk about strategies such as breathing exercises, especially for students who may already have some history of anxiety.

Proactively check in about mental health. This is especially important so that your children know you understand that they may be feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed and that you are there to support their emotional needs. If you don’t feel as if they will open up to you, try to identify someone in their life who can fill this role.

Don’t expect everything to change overnight. Recognize it takes time to adjust. You may see some decline in grades or behaviors. Don’t ignore these signs, but also don’t overreact.

Talk with your child about what is going on and strategize on how to manage the situation.

Be present and consistent. Your children need stability at a time when they may be feeling vulnerable and unsettled. Knowing you are there and things are stable, consistent and, for younger children, routine will help them feel calm and give them a sense of security.

Seek professional help if necessary. If you are seeing symptoms that are more than you can handle or your child doesn’t seem to be able to adjust, seek professional counseling. Jewish Family Services can help.