You’re probably running around trying to track down all the necessities on your back to school checklist. Did you grab the coolest binder at Staples? Have you gone to the mall and grabbed new clothes for the upcoming year? Did you get a cut with a new hairstyle?

Although all of this is important, did you happen to prepare for things money can’t buy? We’re not talking about possessions; we’re talking about your mental health. If you haven’t, you should seriously consider it.

Kids will soon trade in their bike adventures for classrooms. This can trigger some kids and teens who struggle with their mental health. Many kids are excited to return to the classroom, see their friends and make new ones. For others, this can cause anxiety and depression.

Growing up in today’s society isn’t easy. There’s plenty to process; body shaming, abuse, neglect, cyber-bullying, unstable home lives, bullying, drug exposure, sexual orientation and much more.

What to look for

You might see the signs of a mental health struggle leading up to the school year and into the first few weeks. Everyone has different symptoms, not all are visible. Some physical symptoms include upset stomachs, headaches, or a lack of appetite. You might notice a change in behaviour including feeling restless, acting out or withdrawing from others. Their mood might be irritable, angry or negative.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately eight percent of children and adolescents have an anxiety disorder. However, kids don’t need to have a diagnosable disorder to feel a little nervous about heading back to school.

“In younger children, we see more fears regarding separation. As they age, they worry about more realistic fears like getting along with others and whether or not they will be bullied and if they will be able to do all of the work they are required to do and testing,” Jill Ehrenreich-May, director of the Child and Adolescent Mood and Anxiety Treatment Program at University of Miami told WLRN.

“Anxiety is probably one of the most frequent reasons parents and kids seek me out,” says Gloria Silverberg, a counselor at Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville told the Washington Post. “Some people call it the common cold of mental health. Kids genetically, or maybe it’s the environment we’re in these days, are worriers. And for kids that have that worry gene, probably the beginning of anything is a little bit scary to them.”

Miami-based psychologist Lina Acosta Sandaal,  founder of Stop Parenting Alone, an organization dedicated to sharing information about child development with parents also told WLRN that it’s important not to tell kids “there is nothing to worry about.”

“That doesn’t resonate with the child because their brain is telling them that they are in danger,” said Sandaal. “So if you as a parent say that is not happening, they can’t trust you because their body is telling them that they are in danger. Slowly expose them to what they are afraid of. Whether it’s school, whether it is going to a party, you can do it slowly and with different layers,” said Sandaal.

If you see that their anxiety is causing physical symptoms both psychologists urge that it’s time to seek professional help.

How to deal with it

Silverberg suggested that the child or teen have a card in their desk or locker with actions they can take a look at if they start to experience anxiety. This card can include exercises such as deep breathing, tightening and relaxing muscles, going for a walk to get a drink or visiting the counselor’s office for a quick break.

The Canadian Mental Health Association has three strategies when it comes to maintaining positive mental health when returning to the classroom:

  • Take care of your body. Mental and physical health are fundamentally linked. Make sure to get enough sleep, drink water, and eat well.
  • Build resiliency. Resiliency means coping well with problems, stress, and other difficult situations. Problems and stress are a normal part of life. Set aside time to think about the resiliency tools available to you, such as structured problem-solving skills or people who can help you during difficult situations.
  • Reach out for support. Social support is an important part of mental health. People in our networks can offer emotional support, practical help, and alternate points of view. Contact your local CMHA branch for mental health support in your community.