Stressing student mental health

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Think back to days in school, and you will likely have a mix of emotions.

Joy, sadness and stress – sometimes all wrapped up in the same moment.

In today’s world, stressors that students face seem to be ever increasing. No longer is it just peer pressure in school, being at the right table at lunch or being part of “the in crowd.” Today’s pressures extend outside of the brick and mortar of school and into everyday life.

In the past year, student mental health has gained awareness – not only in the state of Minnesota but on a national level as well.

With the COVID-19 pandemic sending many students to virtual or “distance” learning, anecdotal evidence about increasing depression and increasing suicides have caused area residents to question how much stress students are actually facing.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental health conditions can and do develop in children. But because they are still learning how to process emotions, the most obvious symptoms are behavioral.

NAMI said symptoms can include:

• Changes in school performance

• Excessive worry or anxiety

• Hyperactive behavior

• Frequent disobedience or aggression

• Frequent temper tantrums

Sound familiar? School staff members keep an eye out for these behaviors so students can get help.

Recently, licensed school counselors Sammy Croatt and Meredith Sander – both at Aitkin High School – offered some thoughts.

“In general, it was kind of a rough year,” said Croatt, the student counselor for grades 7-9 at AHS. “So many things compounded with the pandemic.”

Sander, the grades 10-12 counselor at AHS, said much the same.

“A common stressor for many at the high school was the inability to predict what the next month, week or even day may bring,” Sander said. “Would we switch learning models? If so, for how long? What if someone was considered a close contact and needed to quarantine?

“It was hard for many to gain any sense of routine due to this unpredictability,” she added.

CAUSE AND EFFECT

Last year, distance learning proved to be one of many factors contributing to student stress.

Other stressors, though, do exist – and it’s up to school counselors like Sander and Croatt to provide students with a safe space within the school to be heard and understood.

Sometimes, it’s just making sure students know they have an open door. Other times, it’s getting creative and starting something new. For example, Croatt put together Wellness Wednesday posts through Canvas – the online learning platform Aitkin used.

That included videos on guided imagery, yoga and progressive muscle relaxation, as well as teaching students to pay attention to their own body and look for signs of stress.

“Some people aren’t always really good about doing that,” said Croatt. “We get too busy. There’s always room to do better. Even the other counselor and I have already started having conversations of what more can we do?”

Sander said students sometimes just need to know adults in the school building are there to listen. Those closest to a student can notice when a “kid seems off,” and that includes parents.

GETTING HELP

Aitkin Schools partner with Northern Pines Mental Health Center as a part of Northern Pine’s mental health in-the-schools programming. The center has two offices at the high school and began a partnership with Rippleside Elementary last year.

Numerous school districts around the area including McGregor Schools also participate in the mental health in-the-schools partnership with Northern Pines.

Additionally, Aitkin Schools added a list of mental health resources to its webpage this year, available here.

McGregor offers a similar list, available here, while Hill City offers a variety of different anxiety coping tools at the “Hive Chill Zone.”

Sander and Croatt want to remind people that mental health is health. Seeking support or intervention for mental wellness concerns is to be encouraged and normalized.

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