New school year marks a critical time to monitor adolescent mental health

The new school year marks a critical time to monitor adolescent mental health
Published: Sep. 7, 2023 at 10:01 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 7, 2023 at 5:07 PM CDT
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NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (KNOP) - For some, the beginning of a new school year brings joy and excitement. However, getting back into the classroom can be quite a struggle for others.

Dr. Desiré Christensen, child and adolescent psychiatrist with Great Plains Health Psychiatric Services, says transition periods following an extended break can often cause heightened anxiety.

“It’s a long time to be off of work basically, this is kids’ work. So, imagine taking two or three months off of work and then having to go back. There is a lot of anxiety with that. Also, their work is different each year, they go back to school and have different teachers and maybe their friends are different so there is a lot of transition anxiety with that. Adults also struggle with anxiety in times of transition; that is something we noticed during the pandemic, especially with those that worked from home. There is some struggle in returning to the workplace,” said Dr. Christensen.

Dr. Christensen stresses the importance of identifying struggles early.

“Kids can be very good at hiding their symptoms not necessarily intentionally but if they are starting to struggle we want to catch that early. The more they get behind, it’s just going to be more difficult to get on top of things. Look for changes in behavior, if a child is more active in extracurriculars and begins withdrawing that would be very concerning for depression or substance use. Also, monitor changes in academic work, if a student that normally does well in school begins getting lower grades that is a sign that something might be wrong as well,” Dr. Christensen said.

Dr. Christensen says this anxiety can also cause physical sickness.

“One of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety is going to be an upset stomach and complaints. So, we see a lot of that at the beginning of the school year. And, whereas if you did have the flu you would want to stay home, if it’s triggered by anxiety by school, we want to treat and manage that very differently. Staying out of school is only going to increase the anxiety and the physical symptoms, so, we need to evaluate and treat that differently,” Dr. Christensen added.

If illnesses persist throughout the first semester of the school year and no other physical signs of illness surface, the illness may be related to mental health. Dr. Christensen stresses the importance of having intentional conversations with adolescents.

“You know, I fall into the habit too of it like ‘how did your day go?’ and they just respond by saying ‘fine.’ They didn’t really answer your question, so there are some helpful ways of asking it that give you that information. I recommend a color system but it could be anything that works for your family. The color system is red, yellow, and green. Green is kind of a calm, good, happy day, yellow is like uhh there were some bumps in the road, and red is we probably need to have a talk and maybe there are some crisis interventions,” Dr. Christensen said.

Dr. Christensen cautions parents and guardians to lock up drugs and alcohol if adolescents are in the home as well.

“Even Tylenol or Ibuprofen can be dangerous when kids get very stressed. Sometimes unfortunate events can happen so we just want to be extra careful so lock up alcohol, medications, and similar substances in the house,” Dr. Christensen said.

If adolescents are showing symptoms of suffering from anxiety or depression they can reach out to Great Plains Health Psychiatric Services or their primary care provider.