It is always an exciting time when children head back to school. They are excited to see old friends and make new ones, and everyone loves getting a fresh start with a clean slate each year.
I raised four children myself and often think back to the day my younger daughter began first grade. I remember how worried she was about going off to school that first day. I asked her why she was so upset, and she cried, “Because I don’t know how to do any first-grade work yet!” I said, “But that’s what first grade is for—to teach you how to do first-grade work.” “Oh,” she replied after a pause, and headed out the door to catch the bus.
Most of our children’s anxieties are just that easy to resolve. They are real but relatively minor, and it takes a little listening, a reassuring response and some modest encouragement to get them out the door and on their way.
At Mental Health America, we can help. We offer a set of Back-to-School surveys, fact sheets, tips and other materials that can help children and parents navigate almost any challenge that they will face.
But sometimes, we need more than that. My son was starting fifth grade the same day my daughter started first, and he eagerly and happily left the house, looking forward to the school year. Despite his enthusiasm and optimism, he began displaying serious signs of mental illness before the school year was over. He attempted suicide, was then hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with a serious mental illness. It’s not really possible to predict which child will have a serious mental health problem and which one will turn out to have nothing more than a passing concern. We hope any issues our children will face will be minor, but it’s a good idea to plan our strategy in case they turn out not to be.
Let’s take three steps forward to give all of our children the best chance for success in school and in life:
- Treat mental health problems as seriously as we do every other health issue. Believe it or not, half of all mental illnesses emerge by the age of 14. These are not small anxieties that pass on their own, like the one that my six-year-old daughter had. These can be significant illnesses, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even psychosis. It is critical that you respond to mental health concerns quickly because that can make all the difference in restoring a child’s health and well-being.
- Understand that “mental illness” is not just one condition. Identifying the correct condition early is the key to developing the right plan to treat it. At Mental Health America, we have created a website, MHAscreening.org, with simple, easy-to-use screening tools to determine whether that low mood is a sign of depression, or that worry over homework and grades is a sign of anxiety, or whether changes in sleeping, bathing and eating patterns is a sign of something more serious. These tools won’t make a diagnosis for you, but they will give you either the reassurance that what you’re experiencing is typical or the information you need to follow up with professionals.
- Follow-up. Parents and teachers should talk together about how to meet the needs of children who do experience or live with mental illnesses, including whether special education or other services might be necessary. And they should always include a child’s clinicians in any discussion of how to meet those child’s needs in school and at home.
This made all the difference for me when my son was in the fifth grade. Despite all he went through, he managed to get through the school year successfully. As for my daughter, she aced first grade and was all set for second grade the following year!
Paul Gionfriddo is president and CEO of Mental Health America. He is also the author of “Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia” (Columbia University Press, 2014).