For some young people, going back to school is an exciting time of new challenges and having fun with friends. But for other students, it can be a stressful period of change resulting in serious mental health challenges. Starting at a new school, entering a new grade, experiencing family disruptions or leaving home for college can be very stressful. One in five children will experience anxiety and depression during the school year.

“Sometimes students burden themselves with unrealistic expectations that result in feelings of discouragement and fears of failure,” said Howard Hitzel, chief executive officer, BestSelf Behavioral Health. “Concerns about friends or classmates are a common cause of stress and often social media contributes to this problem.  Some students complain about loneliness or about feeling disconnected from peers or family members.” he said.     

According to Hitzel, most colleges and universities have counseling centers that are very skilled at helping students make a successful transition to college life. 

Peg Barrett, school advocate for Mental Health Advocates of WNY (MHA) and president of the New York State School Social Workers, is hopeful that public and entertainment figures speaking out about their own experiences and local awareness campaigns will make mental illness acceptable to talk about. Reducing stigma and encouraging children and teens to speak up about their challenges are critical so they get the help they need.

“People like Lady Gaga and Prince William sharing their stories can open the door for others,” Barrett said.

“Anxiety is the number one health issue for children and adults, and can result from exposure to social media, bullying, school violence, increased academic standards and other family issues,” she said. “Kids are afraid to go school.”

Last July, New York State enacted The Mental Health Education Act, requiring mental health education grades K-12 in all New York State schools. This first-in-the-nation law is advancing the movement to expand mental health literacy among young people giving them lifelong skills to understand mental health and wellness and increase their awareness of when and how to access treatment for themselves or others. According to Barrett, this effort is opening up a dialogue with students, teachers and social workers encouraging them to talk about their feelings.

In her role as school advocate, Barrett works with schools in Erie and Niagara County to implement mental health education and social work resources. It is a preventative focus by educating students and training their teachers and administrators. Barrett teaches a course titled Mental Health 101 to equip adults who work with children with the tools they need to promote mental wellness.

What else can be done to help young people? Barrett said instilling trust, teaching them coping skills and empowering them to manage their day-to-day challenges can be helpful. Parents and caregivers can talk to children and be persistent if they don’t open up immediately.

Another program of MHA is JustTellOne.org. Using peer-to-peer messaging online and in the classroom, its mission is to give youth the tools, language and confidence to start the conversation about their mental or behavioral health issues.

According to Carol Doggett, MHA senior director of marketing and outreach, “Young people struggling with a mental health issue often feel alone and isolated. In developing the JustTellOne program, we heard over and over how recovering youth felt their lives would have turned out differently if they had just one person they felt they could talk to.”

On average it takes 10 years for an individual to get treatment after the first symptoms of mental illness appear. In that time, the issue can escalate from a manageable condition to a life-altering crisis.

“The good news,” said Doggett, “is that asking for help doesn’t need to be a challenging task. It can be as simple as just telling one trusted person what’s happening in your life.”

“If you’re the person someone turns to talk about a personal struggle, it means you are an important part of his or her journey. JustTellOne.org also has advice on how to be a ‘trusted person’ and give support.”

By helping a person reach out for help as early as possible, you can increase the use of intervention services and decrease the likelihood of the issue turning into a life crisis.

Join the Conversation, continues to separate the truth from the stigma to increase awareness, understanding and acceptance for those living with mental health challenges, including children and teens. Everyone is encouraged to take the pledge to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Many members of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition offer services for children and young people. Click here for more information.

Self-care Tips to Maintain
Good Emotional Health

  • Get adequate sleep

  • Engage in regular physical activity

  • Maintain a healthy diet  

  • Spend positive time with friends or family members

  • Set realistic expectations

Howard K. Hitzel, Psy.D., MPA 
President/CEO, BestSelf Behavioral Health, Inc.

What can parents do if
they observe warning signs
in children and teens?

  • Talk to pediatrician

  • Get a referral to a mental health specialist

  • Work with school

  • Connect with other parents

NAMI

On average it takes 10 years for an individual to get treatment after the first symptoms of mental illness appear. In that time, the issue can escalate from a manageable condition to a life-altering crisis.