If parents and teens found the 2020 transition back to school challenging, they’ll need even more support navigating the 2021 return. At Charlie Health, we’re here to help parents and families make their way through this “minefield” of a new school year, as our Chief Clinical Officer and Co-founder, Dr. Caroline Fenkel, LCSW, describes it. “The mental health challenges of living through a pandemic are unprecedented,” she said. “Parents and teens are under immense pressure to find a sense of normalcy as the school year approaches, but clearly these aren’t normal times.”
As the pandemic continues, learning to identify, address, and seek help for mental health issues is vital. But many parents and families are left without proper knowledge or resources to work through these issues. And when access is limited due to finances, insurance, or geographic proximity to treatment, it’s even harder for teens and young adults to cope. Charlie Health’s mission is to make mental healthcare as accessible to as many people as possible by using virtual therapy to treat high acuity patients. But what are the unique challenges accompanying mental health as kids return to school? And how should families know when it’s time to ask for more support?
“We know that the antidote to human suffering is connection,” Dr. Fenkel said. “We also know that suffering is exacerbated by isolation. Teens have missed so many milestones because of this pandemic: birthdays, school dances, graduations. Parents and caregivers should recognize that changes in mental health are relatively normal under these circumstances and with that, they should encourage their kids to connect with as many people as possible who bring a sense of positivity into their lives.”
Friends, teachers, and coaches as great sources of positive reinforcement in the battle against isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. “When we keep lines of communication open about what we’re struggling with, it helps people feel safer in sharing more vulnerable thoughts and emotions,” she said. Dr. Fenkel encourages friends, teachers, coaches, parents, and other support figures such as guidance counselors to constantly remind kids and teens that it’s okay to feel “big” emotions. “There are so many coping skills that we can still lean into even with all of this uncertainty around Delta, masks, and vaccines.”
Parents can help their teens find a better relationship with their emotions by encouraging routine, consistency, and healthy ways of processing stress, depression, and other symptoms of mental health issues. Dr. Fenkel suggests going for a walk, performing a mindfulness meditation, or practicing a 4-7-8 breath to ease anxiety. “The 4-7-8 breath is an awesome tool that you can do as a family or friend group, even. You breathe in for four, hold for seven, then exhale for eight. It calms the nervous system and helps people ground in the present.”
But even as parents and caregivers are encouraged to validate, support, and honestly communicate with the kids, teens, and young adults in their life, Dr. Fenkel emphasized how important it is that these same adults have their own support networks as well. Asking for help is always a sign of bravery, never of weakness. And being prepared and proactive in taking care of your own mental health as an adult is a healthy way to contribute to a more supportive family ecosystem.
As families continue to reshape and reintegrate more normal routines in their day-to-day though, not all kids and teens will respond as well to the influx of changes regardless of attempts to make the transition as smooth as possible. There’s a lot of “school refusal,” as Dr. Fenkel puts it. “Kids are worried about underperforming once they go back, which only makes anxiety worse. They’re worried about wearing masks or about people who aren't wearing masks around them. They’re worried about either who’s unvaccianted or getting vaccinated themselves. And of course, the Delta variant is a growing stressor that’s only contributing to the languishing sense of uncertainty we’re all struggling through,” she said.
At Charlie Health, it’s our job to help when taking steps at home don’t seem to soothe or help with mental health issues. Here are some signs parents, teachers, and other loved ones should look out for when evaluating whether or not they need additional support:
- Major changes in patterns around eating and sleeping
- Major changes in behavior that affect functionality (i.e. too lethargic to go outside or talk to friends)
- Yelling, screaming, or violent outbursts
- Withdrawing from friends and family or other events
Especially as rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation continue to increase in young people across the country, it can make a lifechanging difference when families are armed with this information. “If you think a teen or young adult in your life is struggling with their mental health, it’s never too soon to open up that dialogue,” Dr. Fenkel said. “There’s never an age that’s too young or old to have these conversations. Because if someone really does need more tailored, clinical support, we’re here.” At Charlie Health, we offer quick and seamless evaluations for patients interested in higher acuity care. “An assessment isn’t a sentence. It’s sixty minutes of talking out what’s been on your mind or bothering you with a professional. No judgment, no expectations. Our passion and commitment is to help as many people with their mental health and wellbeing as possible. Our job is to deliver hope and healing.”