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Mental Health Matters for Kids, Too!
Since 1949, May has been classified as Mental Health Awareness Month, a month to talk openly about mental health. This year’s theme is “Hope for Change,” with a focus on the present moment, encouraging us to reflect on the growth we’ve experienced, and move toward the future.
What is mental health? Sometimes, the word alone has so much stigma around it that we want to avoid it or look the other way. Maybe it’s because we’re scared, maybe it’s because it’s unknown, or maybe it’s because we’re worried that if someone associates the words “mental health” with us that we are somehow flawed.
In simple terms, mental health can be a state of mind – like waking up and feeling well-rested and good about yourself and your day, or feeling like the eight hours you just slept were not enough and dreading the day ahead.
Mental health challenges may include sadness, anxiety, panic attacks, depression or schizophrenia. There is a continuum. For most, our days will go up and down, but we feel pretty good about life overall. Others may struggle more.
As we’re coming out of the pandemic (hopefully!), we’re reflecting on the stories we’ve heard and the challenges we have experienced when it comes to mental health.
We recently heard about a 7-year-old child having a panic attack on the way to school on day two of in-person learning. The teacher was giving a math test to assess retention levels of her second graders, and the child was so afraid of being behind the other children and not meeting the teacher’s expectations. By the time he arrived at school, this little guy was hyperventilating, crying hysterically and refusing to go into school. It took his mom 22 minutes to settle him down and for him to agree to go into the school. This is probably situational anxiety, and this little guy probably had a panic attack. There is no predictor that this will ever happen again, but giving him support and letting him know he is okay did the trick.
Another child, age 14, didn’t want to return to school. She liked taking classes from her room on the computer. There was an option to return to in-person learning, but she didn’t want to. Her parent insisted that she return. She was dropped off on campus, but after her parent left, she walked home and crawled in through her window to take her classes remotely. She hadn’t been to high school yet and felt uncomfortable not knowing who would be there. She didn’t know how to dress and was afraid that the teacher would not like her. She felt bad about doing this when her parent had gone to work. By the time her parent returned, she was crying and shaking. She was afraid to tell her parent about what she had done. Does this teen have mental health issues, or is this also situational? If her leaving school continues, one might call this a mental health or behavioral disorder.
If you or your child are struggling with mental health issues, try and determine if they are situational or more serious. Help is here!
Here are some questions to ask:
- Does my child cry excessively or isolate all the time? Has my child been eating regularly or are they picking at meals? Has my child been eating more than usual and laying around? Has my child been looking sad or complaining of sadness?
- If yes, your child may be experiencing depression. Many people get depressed at one point or another. But when you notice it, you may be concerned. Don’t panic — get help! Call your doctor’s office for counseling referrals, reach out to Kids’ Turn San Diego for assistance, reach out to the School Counselor (many schools have resources available for counseling services during the school day), or do an internet search for counselors in your area and call around. Whatever you do, don’t wait! Your child will benefit from having someone to talk with, and so will you.
- Is your child hyperventilating? Do they tell you their heart is pounding? Do they shake and not know why? Do they think they may be going crazy or that they will die from their racing heart rate?
- If yes, your child may be experiencing anxiety or panic attacks. Many people experience anxiety and panic attacks, especially during high-stress times. As a parent, you may think your children will be excited to return to school, to see their friends and to have life return to normal. However, the pandemic has impacted children on multiple levels. Some are very fearful of getting COVID, are afraid to touch things in public, or worry that others may be sick without knowing it. It is a scary time for all of us and especially for some children. If your child is having anxiety or panic attacks, it is best not to try and rationalize with them at the time. They will not be able to comprehend or listen to what you are saying. Have these conversations when they are calm and relaxed. During a panic attack or period of high anxiety, distractions may help. Here are some tips and suggestions:
- Coloring books: research has shown that coloring decreases anxiety. Be prepared ahead of time by telling your child that you heard coloring is a good way to relax, so you were thinking of buying or downloading some coloring books. Coloring by numbers is a good tool to use during times of high anxiety or panic attacks, as it causes you to think about the color needed, to choose the right color and to then find all the spaces with that number. Coloring isn’t just for kids — it has real benefits for adults, too. If coloring supports an adult, it will also help a child who is feeling anxious.
- Take a paper towel or wash cloth and fold it the long way. Wet it slightly with cold water and place it at the hairline on the back of your child’s head. You can also splash cold water on your face. These strategies change the chemicals in the brain quicker so the chemicals needed to reduce the anxiety kick in and your child will start to feel less anxious. Click here to learn more about other strategies to reduce anxiety and panic attacks.
If you’re worried about your child (or yourself), here are some resources:
- San Diego Warm Line (a peer-to-peer support line): 619-295-1055
- Access and Crisis Line (a 24/7 helpline to assist with mental health-related crisis): 858-724-7240
- Contact your doctor’s office
- Call 211 San Diego by dialing 411 on your phone or visit their website to review mental health service resources throughout San Diego County
Kids’ Turn San Diego offers limited counseling services to children who have attended our Family Workshop for Separated and Divorce Families program. Call KTSD at 858-521-0027 for support and referrals.
If you or your child are experiencing mental health challenges, get help now!
Take this as an opportunity to get the extra support you or your child need. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a reminder that mental health affects all of us. Your mental health matters!