The school year is starting soon, and that means children will be heading back to class. And for some, it will be a return to stress.

Slightly more than one in three high school students say they have experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in a CDC study tracking data through 2019. That is a 40% increase from just ten years earlier.

“One cause may be social media and the constant comparison that happens on those platforms,” said Family & Children’s Center clinical director Leah Morken. “Especially for teenagers, when they post something that people like, it is instant gratification. If things do not receive as many “likes” this may reinforce thoughts of not being good enough or that people do not like them.”

Effects of social distancing

Social distancing efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in slowing the spread of the virus. But those efforts may have had a negative impact on the mental health of teens. A 2021 review of 12 studies showed a strong association between social distancing and anxiety and depression in children and adolescents. That time in classrooms and taking part in extracurricular activities can be an important source of socialization.

Nearly two of every five high school students say they experienced poor mental health most or all of the time during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a CDC study released in 2022. Girls, in particular, were more likely to report poor mental health during the pandemic, at twice the rate of boys.

Staying connected

Nearly half of high school students said they felt close to persons at school, a routine that was disrupted during the pandemic. Students that felt close to someone at school were 50% more likely to report poor mental health during the pandemic. Those students also reported less persistent feelings of sadness, and of suicide attempts.

Stress at School

School can add to the stress concerns for those children. Grades and homework were the two highest reported stress factors for students in a 2020 study from Stanford University and NBC. Both of those categories were listed as a source of stress for at least 60 percent of students.

“One way to help with this, is to praise a child for the hard work and journey that they took in their learning or their project instead of just praising or reprimanding the end result,” said Morken. “Another reason school may be more difficult is that there is a feeling of unrest in many schools because, although schools have safety measures in place, this cannot guarantee safety for the students. This leads to more worry, anxiety, and stress.”

Dealing with Stress

If the school bell has your students’ heads ringing, there are things you can do to help them manage their stress.

  • Watch for signs of stress from your student. That can include changes in eating habits, activities, or changes in behavior.
  • Showcase good stress management skills. Like other things, children learn from the world around them. Maintaining good stress management will give your student something to model.
  • Encourage your student to get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can leave students unprepared to deal with stress in their lives.
  • Take a break from stressful situations. School and homework loads can be stressful for students. Keeping a schedule that allows for breaks for fun activities can help lower stress.

Seeking help

Don’t be afraid to seek help. Family & Children’s Center staff say they are seeing an increasing need for services including outpatient therapy.

“The best time to take the first step to get mental health help is when you notice a change in your own behavior, or when you notice this in someone else, you may want to suggest they seek support,” said Morken.

Here to Help: Call Family & Children’s Center today at (507) 453-9563.

This article originally appeared in the Winona Daily News on August 8, 2022.