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We send our kids to school to learn, but there’s a lot more to school than academics—and it all can affect the mental health of our young people.
From peer pressure to academic pressure to bullying to substance abuse, many of the toughest issues teens face today are intensified when school is in session.
Before you wrap up your summer vacations and start back-to-school shopping, it’s important to understand what your teen may face come September—and know how to identify when she needs help.
A Seasonal Cycle
While the school year tends to reintroduce a whole suite of complexities that can trigger or exacerbate teenage depression, it can also reduce it or at least alleviate some of the symptoms.
The academic calendar is often robust—especially for teens—and filled with homework, sporting practices and events, school dances, fundraisers, music lessons, and concerts…the list often goes on and on.
As described by Good Therapy, the structure provided by the school year provides teens with stability and distraction, both of which help them cope with depression. Long, unstructured summer days can make depressed teens feel more isolated and less motivated—both of which will almost certainly exacerbate depression.
On the flipside, heading back to school triggers feelings of anxiety and depression for many teens. Getting good grades, fitting in with peers, performing well in sports or other extracurricular activities, and making and maintaining friendships can be difficult—it may even feel impossible for kids. Additionally, teens who have experienced negative peer pressure or bullying will almost certainly feel fear and anxiety at the start of a new year.
All these issues take their toll on our teens. In 2014, Psychology Today put this phenomenon into numbers, outlining the average number of emergency psychiatric visits each month of the year at the Connecticut Children’s Mental Center in Hartford. In June, July, and August, the hospital saw an average of 102, 74, and 66 emergency psychiatric visits respectively. Contrast that with the numbers from September to May—essentially the full academic calendar—when visits ranged from 103 in September to 185 by May.
Other studies are even bleaker; an Economics of Education Review article from 2011 presented evidence of a large decrease in youth suicide during the summer, which was inconsistent with suicide rates of adults in slightly older age ranges.
When Your Teen Needs Help
We use a lot of words to describe teens—“easy” or “predictable” are rarely among them. That’s because teens are facing a complicated world filled with tough issues, major pressures, and big decisions—all with a brain that is still developing. Impulsivity, irrationality, and heightened emotions can all be explained by the limited functionality of the teen brain.
But there are times when behaviors and attitudes can’t be chalked up to teen angst. That’s when your teen depends on you to get him the help he needs (spoiler alert: he likely won’t come out and ask for help either).
If you notice any of the following in your child, you may want to talk to a professional:
>> She is suddenly disinterested in activities/hobbies she used to love
>> He isn’t sleeping, or he’s sleeping much more than usual
>> She is frequently using alcohol and drugs (including prescription and OTC medications)
>> His grades have dramatically declined
>> You’ve received notices/alerts of unexplained school absences
>> She’s overly preoccupied with her weight or physical appearance
>> He is frequently aggressive, hostile, or violent, or has difficulty managing his anger
>> She has experienced a recent trauma
>> His personal hygiene has declined significantly
>> She acts erratically or reckless
>> He seems isolated or withdrawn much of the time
>> She is uncharacteristically sad or “blue”
The teenage world is complex—and sometimes, even dangerous.
All of these may be signs that your teen is suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness—or that he has or is currently experiencing trauma.
If your teen exhibits any of the warning signs of suicide, like threatening to hurt or kill himself, searching the web for methods of suicide, or talking/writing/posting about suicide, get help immediately by calling 911.