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September can bring mental health challenges for many children and teens

BIRMINGHAM – September can be a difficult month for children and teens, and it sometimes leads to an increase in calls to the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) at Children’s of Alabama. 

Cindy Jones, director of the PIRC, said this happens because the process of adjusting to a new school year is not always smooth, and kids may need help overcoming the psychological challenges that result. 

“There are a lot of things that kids are experiencing,” Jones said. “They’re getting back to school, and they’re having to get back into a routine, and this is an adjustment because maybe they have been out of a routine prior to starting school.” 

A new school year also brings new assignments and expectations. It reestablishes social connections with peers, which can be positive, but sometimes is not. In some cases, a young person may experience bullying. The weight of all these burdens can lead to mental health issues. 

This year, young people are dealing with even more challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought about many questions and concerns of its own. 

“A lot of kids get into school and they start experiencing increased levels of stress or anxiety,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty still because everyone’s trying to figure out how to be safe and healthy during this time.” 

Whatever a child may be facing, they can find help at the PIRC. It’s a free, confidential psychiatric response center designed to assist adult callers and community providers with finding the appropriate level of mental health care. Parents or caregivers can call 205-638-PIRC (7472) every day from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., and they’ll be connected with a licensed mental health professional who can provide them with the resources their child needs, whether it be contact information for a psychiatrist or mental health therapist or another form of assistance in their community. 

Parents and caregivers often need assistance of their own, and the PIRC provides that, as well. When a caregiver calls the PIRC, the therapist will listen and provide them with education and support. Jones says it’s important for parents to set a good example for their children of what positive mental health looks like. 

“Caregivers want to make sure that they are taking care of themselves,” Jones said. “They’re taking care of their children, but are they also taking care of themselves? Many times, children are looking to them as a role model, and so maintaining good, positive mental health for the parents or the caregivers is really important.” 

Jones offers the following advice for parents as their children navigate the early stages of the school year. 

  • Teach and encourage children to make friends and connect safely with other students and teachers. This is important for their emotional and social development.
  • Monitor social media use for appropriate content. Studies show it is a positive lifeline to social connection.
  • Set and maintain a routine for children to follow at school and home. Routines decrease everyone’s anxiety because what’s next is known.
  • Use distraction to redirect intense emotions. Take deep breaths, take a break, engage in an enjoyable activity for a moment.
  • Have children practice self-care through healthy eating and sleeping habits.
  • Let children set and work toward attainable goals to build their confidence.
  • Help your child maintain a positive sense of self. Try to avoid criticism. Everyone needs a break right now including you.
  • Teach children how to maintain a positive sense of self and keep a positive outlook on life. Seek professional help if you or your child are experiencing feelings of hopelessness or chronic negative thinking.
  • Allow for self-discovery. There is always something that may be learned from both positive and negative experiences. Look for the silver lining.
  • Validate your child’s feelings about challenges being faced. Listen and affirm more.
  • Help your child understand that change and uncertainty are a part of life. It builds resiliency. Reassure him or her that, together, you will get through whatever challenge you face.

If you’re wondering what the signs are that you child may be experiencing mental health challenges this year, here are some of the warning signs, according to Jones.

  • Changes in mood or behavior – anger, sadness, frustration or disinterest lasting for two or more weeks.
  • Difficulty concentrating – lack of focus, decline in academic performance, poor memory retention, lack of sleep, misplaced items.
  • Weight loss or weight gain – loss of appetite, dieting, over-exercising, using laxatives, overeating, or vomiting.
  • Detachment – isolation, spending a lot of time alone, showing little to no interest in being around other people or connecting via social media.
  • Attachment – children becoming very clingy around parents or caregivers.
  • Physical indicators – complaints of frequent headaches or stomachaches.
  • Physical harm – self-harming behaviors, inflicting harm on other people or animals.

Jones says if your child is exhibiting the following behaviors, you should seek help immediately.

  • Suicidal thinking, self-harm, harm to others or animals.
  • Violent, aggressive, destructive behaviors.
  • Substance use to cope with life’s challenges.
  • Engaging in risky behavior such as, unprotected sex, running away from home.

Take appropriate action. If your child shows any of these warning signs and you would like more information on mental health providers in your community, please call the Children’s of Alabama Psychiatric Intake Response Center at (205) 638-7472. If your child is in immediate danger, always call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.