If you’re headed back to school, chances are you’ve already made at least one checklist. Got your schedule? Check. What about your supplies? Check. Talked with friends about which classes you have together? Bet you checked that one more than once.
But there’s something likely missing from your list, and it might be the most important thing you take care of all year: addressing your mental health and wellbeing.
Going back to school can be exciting. It can also be terrifying, particularly for teens who’ve already experienced bullying, anxiety, stress, depression, or trauma. In addition to the nerve-wracking aspects of middle school or high school — crushes, grades, cliques — students today are grappling with intense experiences, including natural disaster anniversaries, school shooting drills, and heightened political and social tensions that disproportionately affect young immigrants and LGBTQ people.
If you’re feeling a whirlwind of back-to-school stress and anxiety, there are effective ways to respond, says Theresa Nguyen, a licensed clinical social worker and vice president of policy and programs for Mental Health America. (Nguyen also recently wrote a blog post on this subject.)
For children with #mentalhealth concerns, #summer doesn’t just signal fun in the sun. It is a time of emotional and physical relief, which is why going #backtoschool is so hard. So, what can you do to make the transition easier? Here are some tips to get you started.
— MentalHealthAmerica (@MentalHealthAm) August 7, 2018
“You can control your anxiety …” Nguyen says. “The worst thing you can do is ignore it.”
Here are five of Nguyen’s suggestions for making it through the challenging back-to-school period:
1. Gauge the problem
Nguyen says that most students are excited to return to school by the end of summer. But for the 20 percent of teens who live with a mental health condition, being at school again may worsen symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.
It’s important that any student who feels prolonged sadness or nervousness about school pay attention to important signs, such as stomach aches, trouble sleeping, and irritability. Those symptoms could indicate that you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression. Other clues might be Google searches for terms like “I hate school,” “What is depression?” and “What is anxiety?”
If you want an outside assessment of your feelings and experiences but aren’t yet ready to speak to a friend, parent, teacher, counselor, or doctor, you can use Mental Health America’s free and anonymous screening tool. Nguyen says that 40 percent of those who take the test are under 18, and use spikes during the school year. In other words, you’re not alone.
If the screening indicates you should seek an evaluation from a medical or mental health professional, Nguyen says you can print the results as a conversation starter with a trusted adult or doctor. If you feel uncomfortable talking to an adult, Nguyen recommends speaking with a friend about how to have that conversation.
2. Identify coping skills
Some students might already have a list of coping skills because they know going back to school can trigger emotional and mental distress. For other students, this is a new experience with a steep learning curve. Either way, Nguyen says it’s important to ask yourself a series of questions: What worked before to help you feel better? What made things worse? Can you avoid that?
Asking and answering questions like these will prepare you for the moments when stress and anxiety strike. If you need to learn new skills, Mental Health America’s back-to-school toolkit, which comes out every year, includes practical tips for managing your emotions.
One of the organization’s most popular resources for young people is its “Stopping Stupid Thoughts” worksheet. This two-page document is designed to help you deal with painful thoughts that can warp a person’s mood, relationships, and self-esteem. It offers strategies for telling yourself the things you really need to hear.
3. Get educated
Then if you’re interested in mental health resources and advocacy, bookmark the National Alliance on Mental Illness, JED Foundation, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, National Eating Disorders Association, Born This Way Foundation, The Trevor Project, and Crisis Text Line,
For health and science research, including details about symptoms and treatment, consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and National Institute of Mental Health.
Educating yourself about mental health is a way to empower yourself, says Nguyen.
4. Know where to draw the line with the internet
While the internet can connect you to vital information and support, it can just as easily make you feel miserable. Nguyen says it’s imperative for students experiencing psychological distress to know when the internet has stopped being useful or has even become harmful. That line can be hard to distinguish when, for example, posting on an anonymous social media platform simultaneously brings you support from new friends as well as attacks from strangers or bullies.
“If you’ve gone down that rabbit hole and you’re on sites that are not healthy for you, you have to get off, break up, step away from that,” says Nguyen. “Stay away until you’re in a better spot if you’re going to dabble.”
5. Reach out
Nguyen says it’s normal for people experiencing mental health issues to feel unsure about what to do next. But the longer we wait to open up, the worse we feel. She urges young people to reach out to a friend, parent, counselor, coach, or someone else they trust.
It can also be helpful to join extracurricular activities, which provide opportunities to boost self-esteem, learn new skills, and heighten your sense of belonging. But that’s not a simple step for teens who feel alone because they’ve been bullied, are questioning their sexuality and gender identity, or are undocumented.
“For kids who have anxiety, especially if they’re bullied or extra isolated, it’s hard for them to think about how to join a group,” says Nguyen. “They’ve been strategically isolated at school.”
That’s when making connections on the internet can help. School groups like gay-straight alliances can also be a welcoming environment for marginalized kids, and the same may be true of community arts organizations and nonprofits.
“There are some situations where if you’re struggling, please reach out sooner than later.”
“There are some situations where if you’re struggling, please reach out sooner than later,” says Nguyen. That includes if you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or engaging in self-harm. The same holds true if you’re not sleeping, you’re having strange thoughts, and things don’t make sense. Though rare, that could indicate the onset of psychosis or bipolar disorder.
Nguyen says that by taking action, learning more, and reaching out, teens worried about their mental health can make a big difference in their own lives.
“You got this. You are the expert,” she says. “You can get control, so let’s start thinking about it.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.