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School-based therapist offers timely advice for how to help students struggling with mental health issues

As parents and school leaders wrestle over how to manage students’ persistent mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, increasing isolation and heavy use of social media, it appears to be about the basics.

That was the message from Tharaha Thavakumar, a school therapist with Genesee Mental Health, during a Zoom meeting with the media on Friday.

“I think we just need to do more good, the way everything in society works,” she said. I think we should not normalize violence. I think we need to start seeing kindness and goodness, and other things that happen in the world that aren’t violent.”

This is a tough task, given that social media has pushed the boundaries of fun and harmless posts into dangerous territory. Thavakumar’s talk, sponsored by Rochester Regional Health, stemmed from a TikTok challenge for kids across the country. They were encouraged to take part in the “Shoot Up Your School” challenge on Friday, December 17, while some school districts across the country closed school for the day, many others, including Batavia City schools, tightening safety protocols have their own and have school resource and/or local police officials on site or nearby just in case an event occurs.

There were no reports of any shootings on Friday, Thavakumar said, but even anticipation of such events could lead to “awareness raising”. Although there were no imminent threats, the idea of ​​someone bringing a gun to school and using it could certainly cause “a lot of anxiety to parents, teachers, faculty and students,” she said.

Living in an online world...
“It’s unfortunate that social media has this power to create these kind of threats and fears,” she said. “We’ve had a really tough year, we’ve just come out of distance learning and hybrid learning.”

Let’s take the epidemic and the stress associated with it, and then add “those societal threats” to it, and it really has a negative impact on mental health, she said.

“In the beginning humans always go to the negative side; it’s the way we look at things,” she said.

Having children, Thavakumar understands the need to evaluate each situation to determine the level of safety or risk. Her teenage son didn’t want to go to school after hearing about the challenge the night before. His mother suggested they wait and see what happens on Friday, if any, before making the final decision. On Friday, they came to a mutual conclusion.

“My kids went to school today, and I felt confident enough in school safety. I knew my son would be surrounded by kids he knew.” The kids I worked with were a lot of concern; They had closing drills. Experiencing it is actually scary, it’s a very painful thing for kids to go through… Pandemic, masks, school shootings and threats seem to happen frequently. This is a fact that kids have to deal with, so it’s a constant trauma.”

These intense emotions can make it very difficult to focus on academics, she said, as children adjust to “fight or flight” and develop a “vast array” of physical ailments, poor sleep and mental health problems.

“Then we wonder why children can’t do well in school, because they are in a constant position to survive,” she said.

Communication is the key…
As Batavia High School Principal Paul Kesler and Kylie Tatarka noted at this month’s city school board meeting, good communication is critical to helping children cope. Both high school members talked about a strategy of having counselors visit students in class to check on each other’s performance. This is in line with Thavakumar’s advice.

“Talk to the kids and work on building relationships. If you as a parent notice your child withdrawing, ask for help,” said Thavakumar. “Just be aware… Children go through a lot. If they say they are nervous, ask them why. Validate how they feel, I think that’s the biggest thing we miss. Often times things are fine, everything will be fine. No, it’s okay to be upset.”

She said if the child does not want to talk to his parents, find a trusted person who can talk to him and will talk to him. She said that kids worry about what’s going on in the world, and that having a trusting relationship lets them know there’s someone to go to when needed.

How to start…
The School’s Mental Health Training Center offers articles, assessment tools, and advice on how to deal with a problem related to mental health and emotional well-being. The site also provides mental health conversation starters to provide examples of what parents might say to get the ball rolling with a lip-smacking child.

This toolkit provides stimuli models for a variety of situations or interests as well as advice on how to discuss good mental health habits with students and how to create a safe, considerate and age-appropriate atmosphere for ongoing conversation and dialogue with children and young people.

Instead of asking a yes/no question, such as “Are you okay?” , the site suggests starting a conversation that invites your child to participate beyond the one-word answer. These may include:

• “Something seems to be over. Let’s talk about what’s going on.”
• “I’ve noticed you’ve been frustrated lately. What’s going on here?”
• “It seems you haven’t been yourself lately. What’s up with you?”
• “You don’t seem ______ the way you normally are. I’d love to help if I could.”
• “No matter what you’re going through, I’m here for you.”
• “This might be embarrassing, but I’d like to know if you’re really OK.”
• “I haven’t heard you laugh (or see you smile) in a while. Is everything okay?”
• I am worried about you and would like to know what is going on so I can help.

Not all conversation starters have to be questions, the site states, and often a statement of interest and a moment of silence is all it takes for someone to start engaging.
When noticing a change in behavior, it is important to focus on the reason or emotion behind the action rather than the action itself. Avoid the question “Why are you (not) ______?” Instead, state what you notice and what might be behind this behaviour.

For example:

• “I’ve noticed that you seem more anxious on Sunday nights. What’s going on here?”
• “Have you noticed that you haven’t eaten all your food lately? I wonder if something is bothering you.”
• “I haven’t seen you play basketball like you used to. What’s the news?”

Observing and asking about a child’s behavior in a non-judgmental manner avoids the typical “good/bad” dynamic that also shows concern and care, she states.
Thavakumar’s advice to highlight more good in the world reduces what the site calls a “reinforcement of negative stigmas.” The New York State Mental Health Association urges adults to monitor and talk about the ways students practice good mental health and wellness skills.

For more information, visit the School Resource Center at mentalhealthEDnys.org.

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