National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Handling the Stress of Heading Back to School

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

Whether going off for the first year at college or simply moving on to the fifth grade, there are many new changes and challenges that come with the beginning of a new school year: changes in schools; changes in schedules; changes in work load; changes in just about anything you can imagine. It can be a stressful time for both students and their parents. While some of these potential stressors can be foreseen, others cannot be predicted. A little preparation for what might be hectic events can go a long way.

NAMI has a variety of tools available to assist parents and other family caregivers navigate the challenges that can arise with a new school year. Some of those tools include:

Not every child or family who experiences difficulties adjusting to a new school year will be diagnosed with a mental illness. It is an extremely volatile time and children are often subjected to a variety of stressful circumstances. But according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health about one-half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. Regardless of whether a mental illness was diagnosed prior to the start of the school year or only becomes evident once the year has begun, managing it properly is extremely important. If left unchecked, an untreated mental disorder can lead to a more severe, more difficult to treat illness.

School is an influential place for children and adolescents. It is where they spend often more than eight hours a day learning not only about history and math but how to form relationships and interact with peers and adults. Time at school, from elementary school through college, will have an extraordinary impact on future years.

ďThe manner in which children acclimate can set the stage for how they navigate the rest of their lives. Itís never safe to assume that things will go smoothly and that children will automatically get what they need, and are entitled to, from the school system,Ē said Teri Brister, Ph.D., NAMI director of content integrity.

ďAcknowledging and strengthening the alliance between home and school is the goal,Ē Dr. Brister added.

In order to prevent a mental illness from negatively impacting the school year proactive plans need to be made. Try following these tips for making this school year an easier one.

For students:

  • Take time to rest. Do something relaxing that you enjoy! It will provide a nice reprieve from working hard at school.
  • Manage your time wisely. Itís ok to take some time and do something relaxing but make sure to leave yourself enough time to finish your work without rushing to finish the night before itís due. But donít forget to take breaks. A five or ten-minute break every hour will do wonders!
  • Create a good study environment. While studying on your bed may be comfortable it wonít help you learn. Not only are you more likely to fall asleep and not finish your work on time, you wonít remember the information as well. Research has shown that studying in similar environments to where you will be taking your test helps in information recall.
  • Seek help if you are faced with decisions that seem overwhelming. You donít have to make every decision on your own!
  • Avoid situations that are stressful. While you might not be able to avoid that upcoming math test, stay away from stressful situations you can control.
  • Get enough sleep. If you want to do well you need rest. Staying up all night cramming for a test might seem like a great idea but sleeping will actually help you consolidate and remember what you studied.

For parents:

  • Express excitement and interest about the start of the new school year. If you are confident and excited, your child will be too.
  • Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event. Your ability to help handle the situation will help your child relax.
  • Address any known problems in a straightforward and timely manner. If you know your child has had mental health problems request a meeting in advance. Notify the school of any recent medications or treatment plans that are of significance. However, parents must understand that school personnel are not mental health experts. Teachers and other staff are there because they love children and want to help in every way they can, but they are not trained in how to deal with mental illness.
  • Help your child organize and structure. While itís important to let your child work on his own, sometimes he or she will need your help. Lend your experience! But avoid automatically rescuing your child from all situationsólet your child experience self-reliance where possible and when appropriate.
  • Donít be afraid to raise the bar. With your childís input, determine what expectations you have for the upcoming year. Donít let the diagnosis of a mental illness hold you or child back.
  • Say involved! Make a point to learn about how your child is growing not just physically, but socially and emotionally as well. Sometimes your child may not want you involved but donít give up. But donít be overbearing either! A little freedom will make your child feel comfortable. One cannot rely on the school to know what is happening with your child. Although teachers and other school administrators see your children on a constant basis some symptoms of mental illness take time to exhibit themselves and may do so outside the classroom first.