If you or your teen is headed back to school this Fall, then awareness of common mental health problems and how to identify them can be invaluable. Teens today face mounting pressures as they pave their way towards college and the workspace. Building a better skillset for tackling and addressing mental health and school can help you or your teen deal with future stressors, become more resilient, and learn how and when to seek help.
Did you know about one in five teens will struggle with symptoms of mental illness, ranging from depressive episodes to major anxiety and everything in between? More than just a rare occurrence, mental health problems are a common issue in modern society and one that compassion, community, and a societal commitment can help address.
Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are treatable, yet only a fraction of those who need treatment get the help they require. Our responsibility as a society is to ensure that mental healthcare is not just available, but easily accessible and well-known. Fostering an open and understanding relationship toward mental health issues begins at an early age and needs to be especially emphasized during adolescence, a time in which many mental health conditions have their onset.
Work On Your Coping Skills
To cope is to deal with something negative. We cope with death, with grief, with stress, with loss. We cope with the things that may bring us down and keep us down. But coping skills can be both positive and negative.
An effective, but negative coping skill, is having a drink. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and can have both a calming effect, and encourage the release of neurotransmitters that make us feel happier.
But both effects are short-lived and come at a heavy price. In the long-term, alcohol use actively feeds anxious thoughts and makes negative episodes more frequent, negatively impacts cognition and problem solving, affects memory, and leads to a whole host of dangerous, physical ailments and symptoms. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever drink alcohol, once you’re of legal age. But it does mean that alcohol is a poor answer to life’s problems.
Similarly, there are positive coping skills. Going for a run or channeling your anxieties and negative thoughts into physical activity can be a healthy and effective outlet for stress. Exercise and physical movement have a positive long-term impact on your mental and physical wellbeing but are also useful in the short term, leading to the release of endorphins.
However, that doesn’t mean working out or breaking into a sprint will solve your problems, and just like anything else, you can overdo exercising, leading to overuse injuries and joint pain.
Coping Is Not the Answer to All Problems
Coping skills help us feel better, but they are not an answer to our problems. They are meant to help us deal with them, directly or indirectly, without introducing new ones. As such, we can split coping skills into maladaptive (such as resorting to substance use or self-harm) and constructive (such as exercises and creative outlets, like journaling and painting).
Building positive habits and finding effective, constructive coping mechanisms are both important tasks in adolescence, because these habits can carry on into adulthood, and help you deal with life’s future stressors, like mental health and school.
Planning a Schedule to Balance Mental Health and School
Being overwhelmed is a major source of stress for teens and adults alike. Effective time management is important for mental health and school to avoid overwhelming amounts of stress, such as concurrent deadlines, mounting pressure from parents and teachers on late projects, or your own sense of guilt for procrastinating. That is where learning to create realistic and helpful schedules – and finding ways to stick to them – is important.
First, we need to address procrastination and feelings of guilt. Many of us grow up to learn that being lazy is bad and that procrastination is a character fault. However, research tells us that putting things off is often a natural consequence of poor mood and psychological health. It becomes a vicious cycle, as procrastination leads to negative outcomes, which leads to poor experiences and even more procrastination.
We avoid the things that we are worried about but, in turn, only make them worse, as the pressure to address them mounts to a breaking point, at which point we rush to complete our tasks and feel a momentary sense of relief before the cycle restarts.
Creating Realistic Time Management Skills
Building healthy time management skills and realistic schedules can help avoid this destructive cycle of procrastination and guilt. Consider creating a list of everything you need to accomplish in a given week and break that list down into manageable daily tasks.
Break each task down into chunks of 30-minute to one-hour working periods and plan your day around these work times. Interrupt the monotony of your tasks with frequent snack and water breaks, music, and stretching.
Have a friend or study group hold you accountable to your schedule and remind you to focus or refocus on your work. By breaking your weekly tasks down into individual daily segments, you can take your time and focus on the tasks at hand without rushing to get a week’s worth of work done in a single day.
Put Together a Mental Health Kit
If you are prone to episodes of anxiety or depression, then it might be a good idea to put together your very own mental health kit. These are emergency kits you can refer to, to boost your mood, help you cope with your feelings, take a break, or seek help. A few examples of kits you can put together include:
- Digital playlists of videos or music that make you feel better.
- Your favorite (healthy!) snack, kept in your bag or close at hand.
- Something to fidget with or stimulate your hands or mind, such as a puzzle toy.
- A pocketbook you enjoy rereading.
- A journal to create notes, list your thoughts and go over your emotions.
- And more.
Tell Your Friends and Form a Support Network
Positive coping skills, mood boosters, and better time management habits can help us keep our negative thoughts in check and promote a healthier state of mind. But it’s dangerous to assume that our mental health is something we can control entirely on our own. There will be tougher days than usual and times when nothing seems to help. It’s important not to blame yourself for these days or feel like a failure for needing help. No one is an island – we are all connected and help each other through life.
As such, it’s important to discuss your condition with your closest friends and family and emphasize the need for a support network. Set up a group chat to talk with your friends and share your feelings. Get on calls frequently. Spend time together. Organize a plan for how to help one another on darker days. And share resources for emergency situations, such as self-help numbers, the numbers of a good therapist, the school counselor, or a reputable psychiatrist.
When Is It Time to Get Help?
Do not wait for a “rock bottom” of any kind, learning to effectively deal with mental health and school is essential. If you are feeling confused about your emotions, if your mood has been down a lot lately, if you can’t stop feeling sad, or if you are just beginning to feel burnt out – even before school has begun! – it’s time to ask for help.