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December 20, 2021 - 10:58pm

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

As parents and school leaders grapple with how to manage ongoing student mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, increased isolation and heavy social media use, it seems to come down to the basics.

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

“I think we just need to be putting out more goodness, with the way everything is in society,” she said. “I think we have to not normalize violence. I think we need to start seeing the kindness and the goodness, and other things that are happening in the world that are not violent.” 

That’s a tall order, considering that social media has pushed the limits of fun and innocuous posts into dangerous territory. Thavakumar’s talk, sponsored by Rochester Regional Health, stemmed from a TikTok challenge to kids across the country. They were encouraged to participate in a “Shoot Up Your School” challenge on Friday, Dec. 17. While some districts across the country closed school for the day, many others, including Batavia City Schools, tightened their safety protocols and had school resource officers and/or local police on-site or nearby just in case of an event.

There were no reports of any shootings Friday, but even the anticipation of such events can make for “heightened awareness,” Thavakumar said. Although there were no imminent threats, the idea of someone bringing a gun to school and using it can definitely cause “a lot of anxiety to the parents, to the teachers, to the faculty, to the students,” she said.

Living in an online world ...
“It’s unfortunate that social media has this power to kind of cause these threats and anxieties,” she said. “We’ve already had a rough year, just coming off of remote learning and hybrid learning.”

Take the pandemic and related stress, and then add “those societal threats” to it, and it really has a negative impact to mental health, she said. 

“It’s initially always that humans go to the negative; it’s how we view things,” she said. 

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

“My kids did go to school today, I felt confident enough in school safety. I knew my son would be surrounded by kids he knew,” she said. “The kids I work with had a lot of anxiety; they had lockdown drills. Actually experiencing it is scary, it is something very traumatizing the kids have to go through … a pandemic and masks, school shootings, and threats seem to be happening more frequently. This is a reality that kids have to deal with, so it’s a constant trauma.”

Those intense feelings can make it very difficult to focus on academics, she said, and kids adapt to being in “fight or flight mode” and acquire “a whole lot of” physical ailments, poor sleep and mental health issues. 

“And then we wonder why kids can’t do well in school, because they’re in constant survival mode,” she said. 

Communication is key ...
As pointed out by Batavia High School Principal Paul Kesler and senior Kylie Tatarka at this month’s city schools board meeting, good communication is crucial for helping kids cope. Both high school members talked about a strategy of having counselors visit students in class to check out how each is doing. That falls in line with Thavakumar’s advice.

“Talk to the kids and work on relationship building. If you as a parent notice your child is withdrawing, get them help,” Thavakumar said. “Just be aware … children are going through a lot. If they say they’re nervous, ask them why. Validate how they feel, and I think that’s the biggest thing that we miss. A lot of times were like it’s Ok, everything will be fine. No, it’s Ok to be upset.”

If one’s child doesn’t want to talk to his or her parent, then find a trusted person who they can and will talk to, she said. Kids are worried about what’s going on in the world, she said, and having a trusted relationship lets them know there’s someone they can go to when needed. 

How to begin ...
The School Mental Health and Training Center offers articles, assessment tools, and tips for how to deal with a mental health concern and emotional well-being. The site also provides mental health conversation starters to offer examples of what parents might say to get the ball rolling with a tight-lipped child.

This toolkit provides sample prompts for a variety of situations or concerns as well as tips on how to discuss good mental health habits in students and how to create a safe, caring, and age-appropriate atmosphere for ongoing conversation and dialogue with children and youth.

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

• “It seems like something’s up. Let’s talk about what’s going on.”
• “I’ve noticed you’ve been down lately. What’s going on?”
• “Seems like you haven’t been yourself lately. What’s up?”
• “You don’t seem as ______ as you usually are. I’d like to help if I can.”
• “No matter what you’re going through, I’m here for you.”
• “This might be awkward, but I’d like to know if you’re really alright.”
• “I haven’t heard you laugh (or seen you smile) in a while. Is everything okay?”
• I’m worried about you and would like to know what’s going on so I can help.

Not all conversation starters need to be questions, the site states, and many times a caring statement and a moment of silence is all it takes for someone to begin sharing.
When noticing a change in behavior, it’s important to focus on the reason or emotion behind the action rather than the action itself. Avoid asking “Why are you (not) ______?” and, instead, state what you are noticing and what might be behind the behavior.

For example:

• “I’ve noticed that you seem more anxious on Sunday nights. What’s going on?”
• “Have you noticed that you’re not eating all of your dinner lately? I wonder if something is bothering you.”
• “I haven’t seen you playing basketball like you used to. What’s up?”

Noting, and asking about, a child’s behavior in a non-judgmental way avoids a typical “good/bad” dynamic that also demonstrates concern and care, it states. 
Thavakumar’s advice to highlight more of the good in the world diminishes what the site calls "a reinforcement of negative stigmas."  The Mental Health Association of New York State urges adults to watch for ways that students are practicing good mental health and wellness skills and to talk about it with them. 

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

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