By Carol DiFalco, LMHC
School Counselor at Falmouth Academy
There are many things I enjoy about my role as school counselor, but one of my favorite moments during the day is when I come back to my office to find a student just wanting to talk. The young people who understand when they need support, know their resources, and feel comfortable seeking out help, have an essential skill they will carry with them into adulthood.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and The National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 21.4% of all adolescents experience a mental health disorder. Anxiety disorder has now surpassed depression as the most commonly diagnosed mental health condition in adolescents. In 2017 mental health disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and self-harm behaviors were the third most common cause of hospitalization in adolescents.
While it may feel startling to think of adolescents as having such a serious rate of emotional distress, it is important to keep in mind there are often adults in their lives who can provide the treatment and support needed during such times. Often parents, teachers, coaches, and others who have routine interactions with adolescents are the first adults to see signs of changes in their emotional health.
Schools commonly approach emotional health with a three-tier model
Tier one recognizes the importance of providing an emotionally safe place for all students. This is most effectively done through an intentional culture that reinforces the values of respect, empathy and a sense of belonging. There are several ways this is implemented at Falmouth Academy, including, but not limited to our advisory system, class discussions, wellness for life curriculum, and camaraderie on sports teams, in theater and music groups, and in student life events. One of my favorite ways this happens at Falmouth Academy is through our daily All-School Meeting. Collective showing of support and community is initiated and carried out through moments of sharing, and recognition for one another.
In Tier two, students with moderate emotional health support needs have a direct connection with the school counselor, with regular communication or simply touching base consistently. Students are encouraged to meet with the school counselor when their advisor, teacher, parent or other school faculty member notice they are experiencing emotional or social difficulty. By far the most common way a student meets with the school counselor is on their own or with encouragement from a friend. While schools have various means of coordinating with parents regarding their child’s wellbeing, at Falmouth Academy parents are most likely to hear from the student’s advisor or the school counselor when there is a concern regarding emotional health.
Tier three involves the collaboration between families, the school, and outside providers. When students experience significant emotional distress, either acute or ongoing, they will likely be referred to an outside provider. This includes students who need high levels of mental health service and who may be receiving inpatient or partial inpatient treatment. While undergoing these higher levels of treatment, students will be assigned a program point person charged with coordinating communication with the family and school counselor. (To comply with the student’s and family’s wishes of privacy, a release of information form needs to be completed for outside treatment providers to share health related information with school.)
The two common threads through each tier are: acting in the student’s best interest and sustaining thoughtful communication. Essential to supporting their emotional and social development is providing adolescents with a safe and supportive environment with trusted people available to them. Students benefit when schools, families and outside therapeutic providers, when appropriate, work together to identify and discuss what the student’s needs are and how, together, we can best make a plan to support our students.
Recognizing when an adolescent may be experiencing emotional distress
Changes in behavioral patterns are often one of the first signs adolescents are experiencing changes in their emotional well-being. The following symptoms, taken from NIMH, are some common signs to note and that might signal the need to check in with your child.
Excessive worrying or fear
Feeling excessively sad or low
Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
Avoiding friends and social activities
Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
Changes in sex drive
Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
Thinking about suicide
Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
If your child exhibits any of these concerning behaviors, parents should check in with their pediatrician or other trained professional.