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Students’ Mental Health Must Figure in Plans to Restart Classes
Mental Health

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As officials across the nation grapple with how best to open schools, one thing too often overlooked is students’ mental health.

Awareness of the pressures on our children is the first step towards helping them heal and preparing them to learn.The coronavirus has left many kids feeling lonely and isolated. Research on the effect of the lockdowns published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that young people experiencing loneliness may not only be as much as three times more likely to sink into depression in the future, but their mental health could be impacted for at least nine years because of it.One answer? Since 2003, HealthCorps has worked in high-need schools, supplementing existing health and wellness programs with an emphasis on physical activity, nutrition, mental health resilience and civic engagement.

These are teens who, even in normal times, experience disparities in access to health services based on their socio-economic status, geographic region, race or ethnicity – with perhaps predictable results. Specifically, higher rates of chronic disease (including stress) and lower measures of both quality of life and life expectancy.And yet, through our unique curriculum – created by top heathcare professionals and constantly updated to match students’ needs – the students we work with have flourished in so many ways. They exercise more, eat better, and practice positive thought. And, yes, they engage with their communities.Since stress has always been an issue for many of these teens, one of the most requested lessons we were asked to bring to classrooms even before the pandemic hit was “Bust My Stress.” And now? Add the coronavirus-induced feelings of isolation to that equation, and you begin to see how fragile our nation’s teens may be.

As one of our Florida students so gut wrenchingly told us amid the lockdowns: “I still keep it in, but I still think negative like every night. I cry it out so I won’t have to feel that way again in the morning.”Building mental health resilience has become an increased focus of our work.Of course, parents have their own role to play in their teenagers’ healing process. “They can help by reassuring teens that, just because they’re nervous or scared, doesn’t mean they’re really in any danger,” says Mark Goulston, M.D., a HealthCorps advisory board member and widely quoted expert on building a positive culture. “By reminding them that their bodies don’t really understand the fear, and by talking it out and discussing the fear, both the parent and child will feel better and closer.”The HealthCorps program is delivered by highly trained recent college graduates who are future medical and health policy professionals.

They interact with teens on a daily basis – though, these days, virtually – and have developed some simple steps that can help youths through these trying times. Among them: Try meditating or deep-breathing methods, which increase your body’s natural ability to relax during high-stress moments.

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