Mental health experts: Local kids are struggling, they need more coping tools – Star Courier

Imagine going through a two-year period where the world turned upside down over the fear of an invisible deadly virus, the social and political fabric of your country had devolved into shouting and you had to stay at home for long periods of time without seeing friends and family?
You can?
Now imagine going through that as a 6-year-old child, when your newly-found sentience is all you have to define the only world you’ve ever know.
And then imagine your 6-year-old self, right in the middle of processing all that stress around you, trying to deal with the loss of a grandparent to the invisible virus.
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It may sound overly dramatic, but mental health professionals are hearing those stories over and over as they start to deal with the pandemic’s aftermath and the still-unknown depths of its affects on school-age children.
Local schools have redoubled their efforts to give young students the tools they need to get through tough times and have put struggling students on a “learning loss” watch list to see how profound an impact the last two years have had on student performance.
Neponset Grade School, which already takes a unique mind-body approach to education, recently devoted an entire day to allow mental health officials to share relaxation tips and strategies for dealing with stress with junior high students before it becomes a larger issue. The school regularly holds assemblies that promote mental health themes and have adopted an ongoing “mindfulness mission” to ensure the supportive messages are recurring.
“We’ve seen a lot of different behaviors since the kids came back,” said Principal Dean Hodge-Bates. “A lot of kids didn’t even come back to school last year, so some of the students almost forgot how to even socialize.”
The school has students from K-8th grade and Hodge-Bates said the older children have been more likely to act out because of unresolved issues they’ve been dealing with.
“The junior high has been affected most, but we’ve noticed it with kids of all ages and we’ve seen it through all grade levels,” she said. “Our kids are very verbal, so when they stop talking and they are quiet and aren’t interacting, that’s a red flag.”
She said it’s the school’s mission to ensure students are on the right academic path, and having mental health balance is critical to that mission.
“Now more than ever, students are in need of healthy ways to cope with the stress and uncertainties each day may bring,” she said.
Neponset’s daylong event, billed as a Coping Strategies Workshop, included presentations from mental health professionals at OSF Saint Clare in Princeton, which secured the event’s funding grant through the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network, and the Princeton-based Arukah Institute.
Arukah is a counseling agency that focuses on mental health, but it also establishes the importance of maintaining a sound body and using it to help redirect stress.
“We just really believe that teaching kids how to bring awareness to their mind and body, and knowing how they are connected, is important,” said Stephanie Gustafson, Arukah’s chief communications officer. 
Arukah counselors teach their adult clients to control their emotions through relaxation and breathing techniques, and many of those techniques are easily transferable to children. The difference is, learning those techniques at a young age can start the foundation that leads to being a fully functioning adult.
“They are learning in a completely different environment than we ever did,” Gustafson said. “That sense of anxiety is there because there’s that fear out there of the unknown – they keep wondering, ‘What’s going to change next?’
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“It’s really heavy for these kids and we want to give them those tools to cope with it.”
Gustafson said it’s a defining moment for mental health services and education as the need for such services, already hard to come by in rural areas, has risen exponentially with the uncertainty created by the pandemic. She said celebrities speaking out about mental health has only underlined the need for services like those Arukah provides.
“I think people just can’t ignore it anymore,” she said. “There are so many issues we’re seeing – isolation, depression, stress – we just can’t keep up with it. The need is out there more than ever.” 
Courtney Bayer, Arukah’s mind-body program leader, said de-stressing tools are different for everyone.
While some may find peace in Yoga, others may find it in pounding a drum or kickboxing – so anything that relaxes you, quiet or loud, is on the table as a calming tool.
“We all have different experiences, so just sitting still and doing something that’s a mindfulness practice or meditation gives you great insight into how your brain is working,” she said.
She said stress is so dangerous because it keeps your brain and body working, even when you may not be aware of it.
“The thoughts we have in the mind make the body feel like it’s working, even though we’re at rest,” she said. “Then we become immune to it. It affects critical thinking, your decision-making. It’s all connected and it starts with the mind.”
Putting those thoughts and distractions aside are the key to giving the body some resting space. Just being aware of the stress those thoughts are producing and trying to find something lighter to concentrate on can make a difference in helping the mid and body work together instead of against one another.
“We’ve all had exposures and trauma but it’s important to learn how you that affects you and how you interact with others,” she said. “With awareness, you can make good decisions and you can balance your workload.”
For kids, “being overwhelmed is a natural part of growing up,” she said. But learning that “emotions are our responsibility, our reactions we have control over” is something that can serve them well into adulthood.
At the Neponset event, Bayer said students were given a variety of relaxation techniques, with the hopes that giving them choices will make them stick with it. She said counselors don’t sugarcoat to students the importance of getting the mind and body in sync.
“I try to have a conversation with them about it on a real level,” she said. “It takes some time to make that connection with students. It can be an insightful conversation, but sometimes it’s quiet.”
Hodge-Bates said students are using the tools the counselors shared with them. A post-seminar survey showed that 80 percent of the students already were utilizing at least one of the tools presented.
Neponset already shares visualization and stress-reducing exercises daily with students, including a daily self-affirmation at the start of each day, breathing and relaxation techniques; and daily journal-writing, which made buy-in for the recent presentation a little easier. Students are also encouraged to share their concerns or fears. 
“It lets the kids start the day on a positive note,” she said. “We’ve seen decreases in misbehavior and increases in grades. This year, we’ve kind of stepped it up even more. We want to teach them to be mindful of the moment.”
The new techniques offered, like shouting into a cup covered by a towel to quietly vent frustration, are more tools in the students’ tool belt that can be used the rest of their lives. New things like Yoga, drumming and kick-boxing gives students more individualized stress-release options from which to choose.
“Kids don’t realize until after they do it how much better they feel to get that off their chests,” she said. “We do the mindful techniques and the Yoga with them and we’re going to continue to work with them throughout the year to see if we’ve made progress. We want to make it even better for them.”


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