116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This month, kids across our communities returned to school amid the ongoing unknowns resulting from the pandemic. That also means teachers and staff returned to buildings and parents and families sent their kids off to new classrooms or even new schools. This period of adjustment can lead to or exacerbate mental health issues, particularly for individuals already experiencing things like anxiety or depression.
It is sometimes easy for adults to view school through the lens of prior experience alone. Adults might look back nostalgically at their own childhood and have expectations for kids today to simply deal with the challenges they face. But the reality is that today’s youth, from toddlers to teenagers, are experiencing a childhood and a world that are in some ways unlike anything today’s adults have known.
Just because things existed a certain way when today’s adults were younger does not equate to those experiences being better or right in comparison to today’s world. Consider that as recently as the 1990s in this country people were still not required to wear seat belts while driving and were allowed to smoke on airplanes.
This year in particular, layered on top of the typical transitions are the additional challenges presented by the pandemic. Many kids got comfortable staying at home, spent a period of time isolated from friends or missed starting at a new school. Some parents are working from a freshly empty home that had been filled with kids over the past year and a half. Educators might be learning to navigate things like optional masks and social distancing.
Many adults can relate to added pressures or anxieties that kids in school experience. The introverted elementary student that is forced to introduce themselves in front of the class, the minority student in middle school that is placed in a work group with entirely majority students, the high school student questioning their sexuality having to change in front of peers before gym class. Today’s youth also are living with things like cellphones and new technologies, omnipresent social media communications and a changing social fabric in their communities.
The pressures associated with academic, athletic and social performance in childhood are exponentially magnified for today’s youth compared with any time in the past. These pressures may filter to parents, teachers and others. While summer break offers both young people and adults a reprieve from some of these pressures, returning to school reintroduces and potentially adds to them.
There are many things students, parents, teachers and others can do to help both themselves and others from a mental health perspective. Many of these things align with what I’ve talked about before. Encouraging self-care, establishing predictable routines with meals and sleep, building positive social connections, watching for warning signs like increased irritability or anger, excessive fear or worry, avoiding or withdrawing from activities, difficulties eating or sleeping, an inability to concentrate or using alcohol or drugs. When warning signs are identified, seeking out — or encouraging another to seek out — assistance from a trained professional might be appropriate and beneficial.
While returning to school can present daunting challenges, it can also be an exciting and positive experience for young people and adults alike. I encourage you to continue to build awareness around these issues and offer support to each other and to young people in particular. Perhaps most importantly, adults can respect the unique experiences of children and teens and show compassion as we establish a healthy environment for students, parents, families and educators.
Bryan Busch is a licensed mental health counselor in Cedar Rapids. He also works at Folience, the parent company of The Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.