Autumn has arrived. Where I live, you can see the leaves change color and feel the bittersweet chill in the air. My school community is focused on Octoberfest and all things pumpkin and pumpkin spice, apples, Halloween costumes, and candy. The schools are buzzing with fall sports – especially football and homecoming plans are being plotted. Or at least that was what October was like around here.

The coronavirus pandemic has uprooted our plans and schedules. Our youth, parents and school professionals are entering this season with more questions and uncertainty than real answers. Yes, we all have settled into a routine of hybrid and remote classrooms, outdoor classrooms, outdoor lunch, and socializing and streaming everything. But at least for me and the school professionals I speak with, there are still so many challenges and anxiety and plans can derail as fast as they are made.

At Erika’s Lighthouse, our school partners tell us that youth are tired – tired of Zoom, tired of being home, tired of their parents as teachers, tired of not being able to play their sport or visit with friends. I hear teens are worried if this high school year will even count or will they even be able to finish the school year because they are taking on extra jobs to support the family.

In our work, we educate school professionals and parents on the signs of teen depression and how to recognize if a young person might be struggling with a mental health issue. We advise watching for signs and symptoms that last 2 weeks or longer, pretty much 24/7 such as:

  • Sad or irritable mood
  • Loss of interest in things that normally bring pleasure
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Change in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating\Thoughts of death or suicide

But, with our typical daily and school routines in flux, it seems so many adults and youth are struggling with feelings of sadness and loss. It is pretty easy to overlook these signs or not recognize them as something potentially serious. So, how do you tell the difference between what we are experiencing at this moment and a child who is slipping into depression?

As one of our school partners told me, “We continue to look for behaviors that are out of the ordinary or concerning with students. Right now, we are particularly concerned when a student is not attending classes and is disengaged from school.” Tiffany Meyers, LCSW New Trier High School

Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute says the keywords are persistence and severity. “If it’s here today but they’re okay tomorrow, that to me is not a cause for concern,” she explains,

Schools are relying on their social workers and counselors to connect on Zoom with students they are concerned about – even though students are just sick of being on Zoom. School mental health staff are trying to connect in any way possible. They are looking for kids who seem stuck in a negative space and can’t seem to rebound. They are looking for changes that seem out of character. Parents need to be looking for the same thing.

As adults who care for our youth, we need to validate that things are hard right now but also try to keep things in perspective. It is easy to focus on the losses and all things negative and miss out on positive events or situations. But just like the changing seasons, this difficult time will change and things can get better – we deserve to feel better. Our job is to be a trusted adult, be there to observe and listen. And if things don’t get better or if someone is talking about feeling hopeless and wanting to hurt themselves then reach out to get professional support. This suggested language for parents may be helpful if you are concerned about a young person.

Below are some tips from mental health professionals on supporting our students and our children especially during tough times. It really is simple – it is about basic compassion and kindness during stressful times. Educators may find these classroom accommodations helpful.

  • Encourage kids to take breaks and engage in activities that will give them a sense of accomplishment, pleasure, fun, or social connection every day. Doing something for others can lift spirits.
  • Be flexible and work together to come up with plans or activities that will help youth feel more engaged. Maybe it is time to learn a new skill or practice an old one. The act of making plans, completing fun tasks, and coming up with strategies, can make them feel less helpless and hopeless.
  • Practice Time Management. Help youth to set goals, prioritize tasks, break large assignments into smaller steps, work for designated time periods, and take breaks.
  • Relax and unwinds and make sure we all fill up our “anti-stress toolbox.” Explore our Teen Tool Box for ideas on taking care of our mind and body like getting adequate sleep, eating well, and exercising to keep our moods in balance.

This morning the temperature has dropped and there is no question that “change is in the air.”

School days march on, whether in the school building or the remote classroom at home. I want to say that my heart breaks for all of us but I am in awe of the resilience of our educators and our parents. I know we are all doing the best we can and we will bounce back stronger together.

Author: Peggy Kubert, L.C.S.W. Senior Director of Education