Keep an eye on your student’s mental health this back-to-school season

1. Be proactive

Whether your student is starting pre-K or high school, there are many ways to get active. Martini says a lot of anxiety for students comes from the unknown, so help them step up — sometimes literally.

“Give the child a chance to roam the school grounds,” he says “If you’re talking about kindergartners … if there’s a playground adjacent to it, get used to being around the building.”

If you don’t have access to elementary school grounds, viewing a map in “Street View” on your phone or computer can help. Get them used to talking about class or recess. Ask them what they want for lunch. The more questions, Martini says, the more real they become: “What are they excited about? What are they looking forward to?”

Athletics and arts programs can also help. Even if students are nervous about the classroom, she said, identifying other aspects of their school life that excite them can relieve academic pressure and provide outlets for students to express themselves.

2. Ask about the good and the bad

The best way to understand how students are doing is to ask questions. But for older students, especially, if you’re only asking about the good stuff, you might not get the whole picture.

“When you’re talking to your student, ask them about what’s going well, but be very specific and ask what’s not going well,” says Nathan Demers. She’s a clinical psychologist in Denver and helps run You College, an app designed to connect students with mental health resources. Don’t shy away from tough questions with your kids — ask them about the challenges they’re facing, too, she says.

Demers tells parents: Pay special attention to how you phrase questions. Using “what” instead of “why” removes any hint of complaint. This leaves room for students to open up about their feelings and relieves the pressure some students feel to have a good time.

For example, you might want to ask “What’s not going well?” Instead of “why aren’t you enjoying [school]?’ “

3. Monitor behavior changes

“One thing that can be challenging to admit,” Demers admits, “is that many of the common signs of onset of mental health symptoms are like major changes.”

Things like changes in sleep, increased irritability, weight gain or changes in appetite can signal to doctors that there may be an underlying problem. But for incoming college students, he adds, “a lot of that can happen naturally…students move away from home for the first time.”

There’s no perfect answer, so trust your gut, says Demers. “Parents know their kids better than anyone else,” and often they can sense when something isn’t right. “There’s a difference between, ‘Oh, my son or daughter is having a challenging day or a challenging week’ versus ‘Something seems off.’ “

For younger students, one of the most common warning signs is resentment toward school or teachers, says Martini of the University of Utah. He noted that for younger students, frustration with teachers is a recent trend in the classroom. “Especially when you’re dealing with young children, there’s a tendency to blame school teachers and principals for some of their challenges,” he says.

4. It’s not just covid

The rise in anxiety and mental health problems is not the only result of the epidemic. Sarah Lipson, assistant professor of public health at Boston University, said the number of students struggling with mental health has been increasing for several years. He leads an annual survey of hundreds of colleges across the country to get a better picture of student mental health

“You don’t look at a bar chart and say, you know, ‘What started happening in the spring of 2020?’ ” she explains. “It’s not. We’re instead seeing this gradual but troubling trend that has continued through COVID.”

According to his department’s survey, the number of college students experiencing mental health problems first increased in the 2015-2016 school year and has continued to rise ever since.

While the past two years have been particularly challenging, Lipson said don’t minimize students’ feelings by explaining away the pandemic. In an academic year where there is a pressure for normalcy some students may not be ready to return to business as usual.

Lipson says to watch out for those students in particular: “One of the strongest specific symptoms we see — the strongest predictor of students dropping out — is their lack of interest in normal activities.”

5. Lend a hand

Parents can help by identifying problems and suggesting solutions. Finally, there are resources to help students of all ages deal with their mental health, but the difficult task of finding the right one can put students off.

“If you cut your finger right now,” Demers says. “You know to go to the emergency room. But a lot of times when students have a change in appetite, aren’t sleeping or are more depressed, a lot of times students don’t know that. [those are] Symptoms of depression or anxiety.”

All of the experts we spoke to recommend that parents know about the resources available and be prepared to help their children find the help they need.