Skip main site navigation

Back to School: A Mental Health Trigger

August 23, 2018

While it may seem like a normal, inevitable part of kids’ lives, going to school is a complicated experience that can lead to extreme stress and anxiety. It is no surprise that teens are the most stressed age group in America – with constant supervision and mounting pressure to perform in the classroom, younger kids are also vulnerable to rising stress levels.

Psychologist Peter Gray published several studies in Psychology Today describing a disturbing phenomenon – when school is in session, the number of visits to children’s psychiatric emergency rooms skyrockets. During the summer months and vacation times throughout the school year, the number of visits drops significantly. A major concern that Gray discusses is suicidal behavior. Suicide is the third most common cause of death for students over 10 years old, and is the second most common cause of death for students over 15.

What does school have to do with mental health disorders and suicidal behavior? School stresses kids out – particularly during heavy testing months in the Spring. Gray’s statistical study is a powerful reminder that parents should stay alert to changes in kids’ behavior during back to school season and throughout the school year. Have open conversations with kids and teens about their feelings. When they show visible signs of stress, ask them about the cause and give them the support they need to manage the expectations of teachers and classmates. Providing kids with clear, comforting ways to manage their stress can have a lasting influence and can improve their attitude toward work. You can also lighten the emotional burden caused by school through stimulating, playful after-school activities. A student who comes home to the drudgery of homework plus a few hours of scrolling online is likely to experience continued stress. What community-oriented play can you introduce? How can you help your kids approach learning practical skills outside the context of school?

If you aren’t sure how to identify mental health risks in kids, there are a few common behaviors you can observe. Lack of sleep is a typical culprit. Kids and teens who don’t get the sleep they need are likely to feel stressed or out of control. Failing to exercise is another stress trigger. Skipping meals or overeating unhealthy foods are dangerous habits that also tend to be associated with stress. In addition to being attentive to changes in these behaviors, you can help influence healthy habits when it comes to sleep, exercise and food.