It’s that time of year again - stocking up on fresh pens and notebooks, digging out backpacks from the closet, learning the names of new teachers. While starting a new school year can be exciting for many students, it can also be very challenging. After weeks of family fun, playing with friends, or splashing in the pool, students suddenly have to navigate a new environment, new schedules, and many, many new people, which can cause an increase in stress and anxiety.
Experts anticipate seeing a particularly large spike in youth mental health cases this school year. The ongoing uncertainty, worry and grief that children have experienced, along with the disruption to the daily routine of going to school, has been difficult. Children have gotten used to being home with their parents and keeping a distance from others, which may cause increased separation anxiety or social anxiety when students return to a typical school environment. “The loss of many routines such as school attendance and extracurricular activities has led to a sense of isolation,” noted Dr. Adrian Khaw, a pediatrician at Hazel Health. “Tragically, rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse have risen.”
It is important for families to know the signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression so they can recognize concerns and intervene quickly. Though it can be hard to “see” a mental health condition, often the first signs show up in the body in the form of common, minor physical health complaints. By knowing the most common connections between physical and mental health and the right questions to ask, parents can help their children relieve difficult emotions and provide care when in need.
The Mind-Body Connection
Our minds and our bodies are closely related. Sometimes, doctors refer to this relationship as the “mind-body connection.” The way people feel physically can affect how they think, and likewise, the way people think can affect how they feel physically. For example, if a child gets sick with the flu, they would feel physically unwell, but the illness may also affect their thoughts. The child might feel sad or upset that they have to miss school and can’t see their friends or go to after school activities. The same is true in the reverse - if a person’s thoughts shift, it can affect how they feel physically.
Common Physical Symptoms
When children feel stressed, anxious or depressed, those thoughts often show up in the body as physical health symptoms. Some of the most common physical symptoms of mental health conditions include stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, aches and pains, and difficulty sleeping. Parents may also notice slight changes in their child’s behavior, such as being irritable, crying easily, fighting with siblings or having a hard time focusing.
It can be hard to tell the difference between when these symptoms are just physical versus when they indicate a mental health concern. “It is important to look out for the frequency, timing and pattern of symptoms,” shares Dr. Khaw. In other words, families should pay extra attention to symptoms that persist, or happen repeatedly in certain places or at similar times. For example, if a child complains of a headache regularly in the morning, it may be because the thought of going to school is causing stress or anxiety. Frequent visits to the school nurse after lunch with a stomach ache could be a sign of bullying or social anxiety happening during the school day.
Asking The Right Questions
If you notice a pattern of physical symptoms, a good place to start is by talking with your child to better understand what they are experiencing. Without being prompted, students might feel afraid to tell an adult what they are feeling, and young children especially might not have the words to describe how they feel. Hazel pediatricians suggest taking these steps to ask your child about their health symptoms:
If your child continues to experience physical symptoms from stress, you may want to schedule a visit with your child's primary care doctor to rule out any medical concerns. If Hazel is available in your school, you can also reach out to us.
Your pediatrician might encourage your child to speak with a counselor. Counselors are trained to help people identify situations that set off difficult thoughts, and teach them how to use coping strategies to ease tension when stress and anxiety arise. Your child’s counselor will be able to establish a short- or long-term treatment plan to best suit their needs.
With all of the challenges students have faced since the pandemic began, we want to make sure that their transition back to learning in person is as smooth, safe and stress-free as possible. By understanding the ways that student mental health concerns may show up through physical symptoms, we can be better prepared to address those concerns, support students through this challenging time, and allow them to thrive in this new school year.