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Back to School 2020: A Mental Health Conversation

Back to School 2020: A Mental Health Conversation

This year, the return to school looks different for students and their families across our community and nation.

From pre-school children to seniors in college, COVID-19 has changed several aspects of education. This includes virtual classrooms, masks, social distancing and the suspension of after school activities like sports and the arts.

This shift has created concerns for students’ mental and emotional health. Across the nation, mental health professionals report seeing an increase of children and young adults experiencing anxiety, depression and isolation.

Tiffany Markwood is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Winchester Medical Center’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services. She has worked with children, youth and family services in our community.

“I think the predominant concern is safety. Parents are concerned if their children are going to be safe in the school setting. A lot of caregivers are grandparents and other older adults, so that’s a concern. Parents are also concerned about their children meeting their academic and social needs. Another concern I hear a lot is about transitions. These kids have been through a lot since last March. It’s difficult for them to keep going through all of these changes.”

Children who had mental health concerns before the pandemic seem to be experiencing the most difficulties. This is particularly true for those who have reached adolescence.

“Adolescence is a time of emotional upheaval,” Markwood said. “It’s interesting when we look at that age group because there will be some that will be relieved by these changes. That’s because some young folks have anxiety about being in a school building due to bullying, intense relationships and peer dynamics. However, that also means they’re not getting the opportunity to learn the lifelong skills that come with learning from these situations.”

Students can access a variety of sports, arts and other extra-curricular programs during a typical school year. Many schools have suspended these programs to help limit the potential for spreading COVID-19. While it is recommended to limit exposure to large groups, Markwood is among experts concerned about the mental and emotional impact of taking away these important outlets.

“I definitely think about those teenagers for whom the performing arts and sports is a huge part of their life. It’s their social life, sense of identity, belonging and achievement. I think when you’re losing out on those milestones and experiences, it’s really like grief and loss. The type of support, intervention and therapeutic resources that you would do with someone experiencing grief really are applicable to this population.”

Markwood said there is also a concern for children identified as “high risk”. That includes those who come from homes where factors such as domestic issues and drug abuse are prevalent. As students attend school online, teachers aren’t able to see them day-to-day. This means “red flags” for abuse and other issues may not be noticed and reported.

“I think that it’s good for all of us in the community to know that it’s okay to call social services and make an anonymous report. If you see something that’s truly concerning in public, like a child who seems unusually uneasy or afraid, you can call your state’s hotline.”

Virginia: 1-800-552-7096 or dss.virginia.gov (Department of Social Services)

West Virginia: 1-800-352-6513 or dhhr.wv.gov (Department of Health and Human Resources)

Markwood also recommends these tips for parents:

  • Keep a welcoming, open line of communication with your children. Maintain focused and intentional conversations with questions like: “How are you doing” and “What’s going on?”
  • Help your child stay connected with their peers in healthy, positive ways (outdoor recreation, Zoom, FaceTime).
  • Connect with other parents! Join the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) at your child’s school or other parent groups. You can learn from each other by sharing experiences and ideas!
  • Keep your children connected with hobbies and extracurricular activities at home. For example: if your child plays a musical instrument but band has been canceled, consider private lessons. Some schools and professional music groups are offering virtual ensembles.

In many cases, children aren’t alone in their Coronavirus-related stress. Parents are also facing pressure and may need help. Valley Health offers a range of outpatient services if you’re seeking extra assistance navigating COVID-19 stressors, parenting or a traumatic event.

Radio Therapy: Mental Health in the Age of COVID-19

Tiffany Markwood, LCSW & Molly Tahmaseb, LCSW from Winchester Medical Center’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services joined Janet MIchael on The Valley Today podcast to discuss mental health in the age of COVID-19.   Tiffany and Molly gave suggestions, strategies and tools to cope with the stress that comes from the changes we’re all experiencing during the pandemic. 

Listen to the full conversation at: https://theriver953.com/podcast/radio-therapy-mental-health-in-the-age-of-covid-19/

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