Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Mental health and back to school

Over the past week, I've had conversations with people who have this idea that upon a young person’s return to school, it can cause mental health problems – due to the increase in stress. We've seen this scenario discussed in the paper, in the news and on the radio this past month. Friends have told me that some schools are getting ready to deal with a “tsunami” of counseling needs when students return.  

A parent recently raised (to me) the implausible specter of creating a support group for junior high students to help them go back to school successfully. If Chicken Little were around, she would say that going back to school is causing the sky to fall.

Why is it that we’re beginning to think like this? Like there is this need to make normal like, pathological. Why are we beginning to merge positive stress (leads to improved performance and positive adaptation) with negative stress (leads to poor outcomes and leads to non-adaptation)? Why is it that we seem to continue to think that everyday stress leads to mental illness?

Is going back to school a stressor for young people? Of course it is, but so is getting up in the morning!  This does not mean that going back to school is a bad thing or something that will lead to a disaster.  What happened to the view that going back to school was a positive thing? For most young people, school is an exciting step in the journey of life.  Going back to school should cause anticipation, enjoyment and be fun – even in the presence of some “butterflies”.

The reality is that going back to school is a regular and expected part of normal life. The anxieties that most young people feel are appropriate and signaling that adaptation will need to happen.  And most already know exactly how to adapt –buy some new books and pencils, get a new school bag, link up with their friends, ride their bikes to the school yard and have a look.

Sure, there will be some who will have difficulty with that transition. Either because they may have a mental disorder or because the transition is greater than their adaptive capacity, they may struggle. Schools need to prepare for these students, while at the same time – not buy into the hype that the usual positive stress of going back to school can cause mental health problems.

So here we have it – going back to school is something that most look forward to. As parents and educators, we need to take a deep breath and stop focusing on the negative and start focusing on the positive. Don’t put your head in the sand because their will always be some young people who need help - but don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Let’s stop this tendency to create pathology out of normal, everyday experience.  We help our youth become resilient by facing and successfully adapting to life stresses - not by seeking to protect them from it.


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