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Remember the feeling of freedom on the last day of school? Not every student feels it.
Children’s mental health care providers see a spike in visits from teens in May, said Emily Laux, a licensed clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital in Denver. She said while correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, she sees the transition from the school year to summer as a shock to the system of some kids.
“Times of big transition carry additional stress,” Laux said. “For most kids the transition to summer is something that’s fun and exciting, but for others they’re losing connection to where they’ve spent the last eight months. For those who aren’t driving yet or aren’t as independent, they might feel disconnected from friends or activities or teachers who are important to them.”
End-of-the-year academic pressures can weigh on kids too, Laux said, particularly in an age of increasing demands on children’s time and school performance.
“There’s an adult element that society in general needs to look at: What are we expecting of kids and is it reasonable?” Laux said. “Might there be negative impacts of a high-performing, high-pressure society?”
Symptoms of stress
End-of-the-school-year stresses can manifest many different ways, Laux said.
“We often see a reduction in distress tolerance,” Laux said. “We see an increase in worry and anxiety, or maybe a refusal to attend school, increased isolation, or even self-harm.”
Younger kids might lash out more by throwing tantrums, while older kids are more likely to internalize their distress, Laux said.
Kids experiencing end-of-the-year stress would do well to engage their support networks, Laux said, and might benefit from adult guidance in breaking down what might feel like insurmountable problems like heavy workloads.
Structured activities can be a blessing or a curse, she said.
“Keep activities that bring pleasure and joy,” Laux said. “For instance, softball might be incredibly important, if it adds something to a kid’s week and gives them an outlet and (a way to) stay connected. But think about reducing some unnecessary ones. Kids tend to be involved in a lot of activities. It’s worth taking a look at which of those are necessary and important and which can be let go.”
Parents are vital for responding to end-of-the-year stress, Laux said.
“Keep channels of communication as open as possible,” Laux said. “Be open and available so your kids can come to you. You can put feelers out: you might say, ‘I remember in high school that wrapping up high school can be stressful. How are you managing that?’ Even if they don’t respond in the moment, it plants a seed that you’ll hear them out. If kid says they’re in crisis, be mindful of your own reaction in that situation. A kid disclosing that going to be hypervigilant for your response. Be supportive, empathetic, but pragmatic.”
Time frame not firm
Stress spikes among kids can happen even earlier than the end of the school year, said Christine Casey Perry, the district mental health resource coordinator for Littleton Public Schools.
“We see our spikes in mental health crises in October and April,” Perry said. “People tend to link the October spike to the decrease in daylight. My own theory is that for those in school environments, the shine of the new school year has worn off. Maybe they’re struggling in classes, and it’s still too far from the finish line to be hopeful. The same in the spring: There’s SATs, prom, and the finality of the end of the year looming.”
May is a breeze for Ashlynn Moore, a junior at Littleton High School.
“This is the least stressful part of the school year,” Moore said. “All I have to worry about is finals. I don’t worry about much else.”
Moore said her stress peaked in April, when her anxiety over performing well on the SATs left her sleep-deprived for days on end.
“I was obsessed with getting a good score because that’s what colleges care about,” Moore said. “I had to retake the test because I did so poorly. I lost focus because I was so tired, and I was trying to make that up with energy drinks.”
Moore’s experience isn’t uncommon, Laux said, nor is her coping method: hanging out with friends.
“Peers tend to become teens’ primary support group.,” Laux said.
Running beneath student stress is the undercurrent of social media-induced anxieties, Perry said.
“Social media is a rough beast to battle with,” Perry said. “It can give outsized impressions of issues: It can make it look like everyone’s life is perfect, and on the flip side, it can make it look like everyone’s on drugs.”
More than a statistic
Mental health is hard to quantify, with numbers perhaps telling only a partial story.
Suicide interventions — which mean only that a mental health provider was worried enough to ask a student if they were considering suicide, not that the student made a suicide attempt — are up sharply at Littleton schools this year, jumping from roughly 200 at this time last year to roughly 300 this year.
Again, Perry said, correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, and the spike might simply be due to more kids being comfortable seeking mental health care.
Still, Perry said young folks today have more on their minds.
“This is a more anxious and stressed-out generation,” Perry said. “The impacts of being interconnected digitally but not in real life is having impacts on students.”
Schools are stepping up their game when it comes to addressing mental health issues, Perry said. Littleton, for instance, now plays host to a student-led effort called Sources of Strength, which reaches out to kids showing signs of struggling, and works to promote a culture of support and resilience, Perry said.
The focus on mental health issues can obscure the reality that the majority of kids are getting by just fine, Perry said.
“There’s a narrative that all kids are struggling,” Perry said. “There’s been some increase, but the majority of kids are doing OK. When we look at our surveys, our students scored really high feeling safe and comfortable at school.”
Moore, the high school junior, said she’s looking forward to the end of the school year.
“I’m good now,” Moore said. “The SATs are done.”
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