With Connecticut schools going back in to session, many families and students are grappling with anxiety related to the many unknowns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Community Health Center, Inc. is the state’s largest provider of school-based health care, with behavioral health clinicians serving more than 180 schools. When schools closed last March, sessions with students shifted to telehealth. In-person visits will resume when schools reopen, with telehealth available as needed.
CHC’s behavioral health leaders are offering advice to families and students finding it difficult to cope at this time of back to school stress and anxiety.
Tim Kearney, PhD, Chief Behavioral Health Officer and President of the Behavioral Health Staff at CHC, notes parents and youth are worried and grappling with many unknowns – will they be safe, will their teachers, friends, or family members get sick if school reopens, will they return for a few days or weeks, only to have to go back to a virtual setting? He offers a few pointers:
For Parents: “You know your child and their needs better than anyone else. Collect your best information about your school’s plans, learn the most recent information about the virus and risks associated with returning to the social setting of school, talk to people you trust for input, and consider your child’s opinion and their specific needs. Then make the best decision can make and go forward in the safest way you can to reduce risks.”
For children: “This is a scary time. You don’t need to pretend to be brave – if you are scared, talk to someone you trust. Make plans on how to be safe in school and practice how you will handle the new challenges that are coming your way – wearing a mask all day, keeping distant from your friends, having many rules and routines change in your school.”
Dr. Kearney advises that some children will do fine with heading back to school and easily deal with change. Others will show signs of increased anxiety of depression, such as trouble sleeping, increased fighting with siblings or parents, talking about fears or worries, eating more or less than usual, withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy, or talking about hurting themselves. Even those who have handled the whole pandemic up to now well may find that the stress of going back to school (or not) is one thing too many.
Tichianaa Armah, M.D., CHC Medical Director and VP of Behavioral Health, commented: “As a Psychiatrist at CHC and a mother of school aged children myself, I stress and practice an open dialogue with children. We learn a lot when we take the time to listen to children. Find out what they know and how they feel about returning to school in the midst of the ongoing pandemic and cries for racial equity. Remember, if you are anxious they can see and feel that; model what it means to cope well with those feelings and engage in activities that help the whole family find some peace, from a game of charades to a walk on the beach. Be honest with them about the continued uncertainty while instilling hope with reminders that the country has survived past crises, and together we will make it through this one!”
“Parents should not just be honest about their own challenges dealing with all the uncertainty, but be honest about not having all the answers and recognizing that things remain in flux,” continued Dr. Armah. “That they cannot promise there will not be quarantine or a return to remote learning for those who return to hybrid or in-person school. In the midst of so little clarity and structure, try to give increased clarity and structure in other ways to help childten feel a sense of some normalcy with some routines that they can also help come up with and can look forward to for the school year.” Community Health Center, Inc.’s team of behavioral health clinicians are available at locations throughout Connecticut and can meet virtually by phone or video with children and parents needing support. More information is available at www.chc1.com.