Understanding Student Mental Health: Common Issues & Support
Expert Interview: Beth Jakubanis, MSW
Beth is the founder of SoCal Therapy Center & SoCal Child Therapy. She provides counseling, therapy, psychotherapy, parenting classes, parenting support, parenting advice, and parenting tips to children and families in Los Angeles with ADHD, Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorder, depression, grief or bereavement, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and gender variance.
What are some of the common triggers for individuals with these mental health challenges, specifically in K–12?
Common triggers for depression and anxiety can trace back to pressures or changes in school or family life. A kid can experience anxiety, for example, for a variety of reasons. One possible reason is pressure at school: think in terms of tests or papers, a change of a teacher or classroom, conflicts with other kids in the form of social media bullying or face-to-face bullying. A kid may experience depression as a result of a loss of an important relationship, a change in the family (an older sibling leaves the house, new sibling joins the family, parents separate, a grandparent dies).
Causes of alcoholism and drug abuse are complex. To begin with, some individuals are sensation-seeking and experiment with them to pursue the sensation. Other individuals may be growing up in an environment where alcohol and drug use is normalized. There is also a genetic component to a vulnerability to alcoholism and drug abuse.
Eating disorders also have a genetic component and are often activated when a person is looking for a sense of control. Controlling the food that comes in or out of their body may be the most control that they are able to exercise over their circumstances. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is usually brought on when a life or death situation is experienced by an individual. The fear-inducing memory is improperly stored in the amygdala. Some research has found that a mother who experiences a trauma during pregnancy can pass along a genetic marker which creates a vulnerability towards PTSD in their children.
How can students who experience these mental health issues best take care of themselves?
- Strengthen their support network. A support network of teachers, adults/parents, and friends can reduce feelings of isolation by providing the individual with people who can normalize their feelings, help them to think differently about their circumstances, and improve their mood. Research shows that one supportive adult at a school can reduce the likelihood that a student will drop out of school.
- Engage in pleasurable activities. We know that we have the capacity to improve our mood by engaging in pleasurable activities. Examples of enjoyable activities will differ for different people. Some ideas can include listening to or dancing to favorite music, reading a favorite book, rollerblading, swimming, playing with animals, etc.
- Set goals for yourself. Oftentimes when our mood is low, we have a hard time imagining what it would be like if the problem were no longer present. Envisioning a world where the problem no longer exists and taking steps to resolve it can be a very effective way of improving mood and changing the external circumstances that are triggering the difficulties.
- Change your body chemistry. When we are feeling low there is often a biological component to our mood. We can change that by changing our body chemistry. How do we do that? Enter TIPP. TIPP stands for Temperature, Intense exercise, Paced breathing, and Paired muscle relaxation. Here’s how: change your body temperature (take a cold shower, hold some ice cubes, etc.), do intense aerobic exercises like running, and do belly breathing or a guided muscle relaxation video. These things can bring immediate relief.
- Cope ahead. Sometimes we are taken by surprise by a negative mood, but sometimes we can anticipate it. When coping ahead, we teach ourselves how to prepare for what may be unpleasant and create a plan to get through the difficulty without becoming overwhelmed by the emotions that it evokes.
If students experience a particularly difficult season, should they tell their school? If so, what should they say?
When things are tough, a student should tell their parents and together with their parents identify who at the school they may want to involve in the conversation. What to tell the school will depend upon what the problem is. A student and their family may brainstorm about what support they may want in notifying the school. Are they going to ask for accommodations in completing homework? Extra time on a test because of anxiety? A special testing environment because of ADHD? A school can be very helpful and responsive when they know what challenges the student is facing and everyone has an open conversation about how to best meet the needs of the student who is struggling.
How can parents best support these students?
A parent can best support their child by listening to their difficulties. At different ages a child will communicate their difficulties in different ways. A seven-year-old doesn’t often have the ability to tell their parent that they are depressed. Instead they may show it in behaviors such as irritability, crying, or isolating from others. Meanwhile a teen may withdraw from others but have the capacity to discuss feelings of anxiety or depression with an adult.
It is important that a parent is able to accept and validate the child’s feelings and does not try to talk them out of the feelings or otherwise invalidate them. Reassuring them that everyone feels this way sometimes and accepting the emotions can in and of itself be very healing for the child. Following up with helping the child through some of the above interventions can often be enough.