Well-Being Revolution: The importance of having back-to-school discussions about mental health

As students of all ages start getting back into their routine at school, parents and their kids are having those conversations about mental health.
Published: Sep. 29, 2023 at 6:57 AM PDT
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OREGON CITY, Ore. (KPTV) - As students of all ages start getting back into their routine at school, parents and their kids are having those conversations about mental health.

In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

“They’re like the light of my life, which is really corny but they really are,” said Sammie Wagner.

Sammie and her family are like many families in Oregon. They own a home in Oregon City, both she and her husband work full-time, and her two boys - Soren and Aldyn - attend their local elementary school.

SEE ALSO: Portland construction company offering workers mental health support

But like many families, they’re experiencing the impact of a nationwide mental health crisis among children and teens.

“Last year was definitely the hardest for our oldest one but we learned a ton from last year and this year seems to be going really, really well,” Sammie said.

She noticed Soren’s behavior started to change as the school year began to ramp up.

“It started off really great but shortly into school he started to voice, ‘you know, I don’t really want to go to school today. I don’t feel comfortable,’” she said. “And digging into it more we had to figure out what really is the core cause.”

After months of talking with Soren, his school teachers and administrators, and doing some research, Sammie says they discovered her son was battling anxiety.

“COVID really created such an isolating environment. You kind of feel like what you’re going through you’re the only one going through it just because we were so isolated.” Sammie said. “When you think about it, you’re looking at your own situation going, ‘gosh, is everyone’s kids struggling this hard.”

“Mental health in children and adolescents has been a rising concern for many years and it actually predated the pandemic to some degree,” Dr. Paul Giger, Medical Director for Behavioral Health, Providence Health.

Dr. Giger says after the pandemic, Providence saw an explosion of mental health issues, particularly in children and adolescents.

“With the younger kids, what you’re typically seeing is more behavioral issues. You may see issues in the classroom with kids being hyperactive or getting upset and agitated, so you see a lot of behavioral disruption is kind of the major source of concern,” Dr. Giger said.

He says it’s still unclear what exactly is the root cause for the crisis, but he says social scientists point to one theory of how the COVID-19 pandemic’s isolation from school impacted younger children.

“If you’re in second, third grade there’s a certain amount of learning that you would have typically done at that point,” Dr. Giger said. “Learning how to be in a classroom, how to follow directions, how to get along with your peers - that kind of got stunted.”

He says if parents notice anything strange about their child’s behavior, they should initiate communication with their child and ask questions about their day, for example. Then it’s about building skills.

“Working on strategies to calm, strategies to relax, strategies to calm the body. Some basic things like that,” he said.

He also says communicating with your child’s teacher or school counselor about addressing behavioral issues is key.

Sammie says she and her family learned a lot about the resources offered at Soren’s school for his mental health.

“That was huge knowing that there are different people whose only job is not to care about how well he did in math today or did he learned the right stuff in PE. It’s, is he happy, is he confident us he doing well,” Sammie said.

SEE ALSO: Lakeridge HS football program coping with third suicide in less than 3 years

Sammie says through everything they learned over the last year, this year is an improvement for Soren. She says the most important thing parents can do for their child’s mental health is to be involved.

“We have to remember we are the right parents for our kids and we’re trying so, so hard to get them through this life with flying colors. But it’s going to be hard so give yourself grace when it’s really tough,” she said.

To learn more about the Well-Being Revolution, a campaign to create conversations around behavioral health, click here.