Supporting Teen Mental Health: Back to School During a Pandemic
As schools lift pandemic-related restrictions, the uncertainty that follows fuels mental health challenges for students. According to a C.S. Mott Children's Hospital poll, 46% of parents say their teen has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the start of the pandemic.
COVID-19 has been distressing for everyone, and making sure your teen's okay can be scary. We spoke with experts to collect their advice and mental health resources for understanding your teen's well-being and helping them cope.
What is the Cause of the Teen Mental Health Crisis?
Adolescent therapist Dr. Courtney Conley says transitional periods — like starting high school or college — make us particularly anxious because they're filled with unknowns. She advises that parents begin supporting teens' mental health by exploring their biggest concerns.
Popularly reported concerns among teens include:
- Health concerns, grief, and loss due to the pandemic.
- Climate change and weather disasters.
- Political tension in the country.
- Separation from friends and loved ones — and reconnecting with them.
Remember, returning to school doesn't mean returning to normal. It can cause more stress for some adolescents, especially teens who don't know what "normal" high school or college looks like.
Elyse Fox, founder of the Sad Girls Club, a non-profit focused on reducing mental health stigma, explains that teens "are creating the new norms for how we interact with each other in school and social settings. That's a big ask of a 30 or 40-year-old, let alone someone who's just becoming an adult."
Teens may be expressing concern from one or all of these factors. But parents can help. Here are six ways to support your teen.
How To Support Your Teen
Therapy isn’t just for crises — anyone can benefit from it. In talk therapy, a counselor will work with your teen to develop techniques for dealing with depression or anxious thoughts or improving their relationships.
The National Institute of Mental Health suggests asking questions of a potential therapist or counselor, including:
- Is their approach supported by research?
- How will you be involved as a parent?
- What does progress look like?
- What costs are involved?
Some employers or health insurance providers will help you cover the cost of mental health resources, including therapy. In other cases, you can tap into online support networks for reduced prices from anywhere in the world.
Since many mental health issues stem from anxiety about the future, it can help to recenter on the present. A mindfulness practice does just that.
Mindfulness can include:
- Breathing exercises
- Body scan
- "Raisin meditation"
Your teen can also join a mindfulness community online. Parenting educator and advocate Kimberly King recommends Inward Bound Mindfulness Education. This website hosts virtual and social sessions for teens to get involved with meditation.
Almost half of the teens in an American Psychological Association survey said they were less involved in extracurriculars due to the pandemic. Help your teen reconnect to their interests and equip them with resources to prepare for life’s next steps.
Your teen might like drawing, journaling, or using poetry to express themselves. Fox recommends older teens try activities they enjoyed in middle school to find comfort, such as being outside or talking to an old friend.
Sometimes your years of experience actually get in the way of listening.
"As adults, we often compare the worries of our kids to our adult worries (paying the bills, work, childcare, etc.), and then determine they are less important," Dr. Conely said.
You can listen better by acknowledging that your teen’s stressors are just as critical as your own. Avoid these phrases that minimize their issues.
"You’re being dramatic or too sensitive."
- This shuts down the conversation before your teen can share concerning symptoms with you.
"Everything will be fine."
- This dismisses your teen’s concerns and can even promote obsessive or excessive reliance on reassurance.
"Just forget about it."
- While distraction can sometimes help us cope, a review of coping research suggests that teens are generally better off approaching their problems than avoiding them.
Instead, King wants parents to plan mental health conversations with their teens. She reminds parents to practice asking open questions, for instance: "I’ve noticed you’re a little more quiet than normal… anything going on?"
In the APA study, 45% of teens said they had trouble focusing on school due to the pandemic. Parents can encourage helpful organizational habits to help teens tackle their schoolwork while positively impacting their mental health.
Dr. Conley says that making a checklist works because it "keeps you focused on one task at a time, rather than allowing your mind to become overwhelmed." Conley also recommends rewarding yourself in little ways for completing tasks on time. Teens can set their own reward system based on what motivates them.
Today, many Gen Z influencers and advocates use social media platforms to draw awareness to mental health and support other teens. Social media can be essential when in-person services and social activities are limited.
Fox admits there’s a learning curve for parents who didn’t grow up with social media but says it’s how Sad Girls Club meets Gen Z where they are.
When it comes to mental health, your example will influence your teen. Our experts underscored the importance of self-care habits for parents, including:
- Reassessing your schedule and commitments.
- Establishing healthy boundaries.
- Finding a therapist, counselor, or support group.
- Prioritizing physical health and sleep.
Teen Mental Health Resources
Whether you're concerned your teen is on the brink of crisis or you're just curious about ways to boost their well-being, many organizations serve teens and families. Here are a few:
National Suicide Prevention LifelineCall 1-800-273-8255 for confidential emotional support from a professional.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA)SAMHSA helps locate mental health services.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)Learn about mental illness, find mental health resources, or join a support group.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry's Facts for FamiliesFact guides help parents understand adolescent mental health language and support throughout developmental stages and life's challenges.
Soul Sessions by The Sad Girls ClubAccredited therapists lead this free, digital group therapy program for Gen Z and millennial girls and women of color.
Greater Visibility Means Better Mental Wellbeing
Three-quarters of high school seniors and college-age students in a National Society of High School Scholars survey anticipated mental health issues in school — that figure is enormous. However, even more (82%) said they knew where to turn if they needed support.
There's a lot to be hopeful about in the adolescent mental health landscape — from increased access through the internet to organizations dismantling stigma. You can promote the cause and help your teen by asking questions, connecting to the pros, and taking care of your own mental health.
Meet the Sources
Dr. Courtney Conley, Ed.D, NCC, LCPC, ACS
Courtney Conley is an author, adolescent therapist, professor, and mother. Her mission is to equip others with the tools needed to successfully and authentically navigate life. She partners with parents to support struggling youth. You can download a free chapter of her book, "Your Daughter Doesn't Have to Be Miserable: An Approach to Supporting Your Teenage Daughter Through Depression."
Elyse Fox founded the Sad Girls Club in February 2017. After releasing a documentary film about her life with depression, Elyse immediately experienced a wave of young women from all over the world who were seeking a mentor through their own mental health struggles. Elyse is committed to showing up for the BIPOC community and marginalized persons by creating accessible resources and normalizing the conversation.
Elyse currently serves on Selena Gomez's Rare Beauty Council board. Sad Girls Club is the recipient of the SXSW 2021 Community Service Award.
Kimberly King, "The Tough Topics Mom," is the author of the best-selling book for children on prevention called I Said No!, a kid-to-kid guide to keeping private parts private. Kimberly is a mom of three children, a survivor, a Sexual Abuse Prevention Facilitator with D2L.org, and a Sexual Assualt Crisis Counselor with The Rowan Center. She spends her time training adults and children on prevention strategies and sharing her expertise as a consultant, advisor, and media source.
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