Denise Gilstrap is a clinical assistant professor at Loyola University and a former New Orleans Navigator. In addition to teaching and supervising clinicians-in-training, Denise directs a community-based mental health clinic that provides low-to-no cost family therapy, play therapy, and individual and group counseling.
Hi Denise! I know we’ve spoken in the past about what you think schools should be doing to support students’ mental health. I imagine that’s all still relevant now.
Absolutely. One thing that comes up in New Orleans a lot, and I think it's starting to come up nationwide, is the need for schools to be more tuned in with the different traumatic experiences that some of our children face. Many children will come in and be labeled as “behavior problems.” A lot of times, we are not considering what experiences a child has gone through that could be contributing to the behavior. So I would love to see schools adopt more trauma-informed practices.
It seems like that’s going to be even more critical as students return to school in-person this year and next. What kinds of mental health concerns do you think we’ll see with young people?
Due to the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression in kids and teens have significantly increased. So has suicidal ideation. When students transition back to in-person school, parents may start to see the behavior changes that come with anxiety and depression start to show up—if they haven’t already.
What can parents do now to support their kids with the transition back to school?
One big thing is monitoring the information that their children are exposed to. Sometimes access to too much information—all the news—can drive anxiety. And I think a lot of the worry with Covid-19 comes from misinformation, too. When your child goes back to school, they might hear classmates say something that's not accurate, so parents can be supportive and explain, "Well, this is what this actually means,” or reassure them with facts.
Along with that, parents need to prepare kids for what in-person school is going to be like. I'm sure social distancing practices will still be in place in the fall. They may not be able to socialize the way that they've been able to in the past. So parents should ask questions now and be knowledgeable about what school is going to look like, and then communicate that to their children so they are prepared. You want to help them feel as safe as possible. And then of course parents should encourage their kids to talk about the things that they're worried about. I think kids are going to be mostly excited to be back in school. But I do think there is going to be a lot of anxiety that comes out as students start to get back into the swing of things academically, and are maybe having to play catch-up because they’re struggling suddenly.
What are some warning signs that parents should be looking for?
You know your children, and you know when something doesn't seem right. Your child may not really know how to voice what's going on with them. If you notice that your child is isolating themselves or not wanting to socialize as much, that may be a sign of anxiety and depression.
Beyond that, any mood changes that can't be explained by typical developmental things can be a warning sign. If you feel that one minute they're happy and the next they're withdrawn, and it’s not really attributable to something that occurred, that's something to pay attention to. If they seem irritable, easily frustrated with school, or easily frustrated with family members or friends—and that feels unlike them—that's something to be mindful of. And sleep is another really important thing. Are they having trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much? Are they waking up in the middle of the night and getting on their phones or screens again? So parents should keep an eye on that.
Finally, their academic performance can be a huge indicator that something might be going on, especially for kids who typically perform well. If they were previously motivated with school or extracurricular activities, but now they're not, or they’re having trouble concentrating or tackling things that previously weren’t a problem, that’s something to consider seeking support for.
Then with the little ones, warning signs might look like externalizing behaviors—such as acting out, being aggressive, being defiant, or throwing tantrums. They also may cry a lot more than usual. They may complain of a headache or a tummy ache, which is typical for small children when they’re experiencing anxiety or other mood changes.
If parents do see these worrying signs, what kinds of support or resources should they be looking for?
They should definitely seek professional support if they notice these things. Of course, there are things that parents can do to help their kids at home. But I think with everything that's been going on, it's always best to seek a professional who can look at it and say, "Okay, these are just normal developmental things" or "No, this is something more serious that we need to address."
I always recommend parents start with the school counselor, who should be able to refer the family to a professional. Parents could also check in with the student's primary care physician for a recommendation.
What do you see schools doing to support students’ mental health in this transition?
I’ve noticed that many schools are partnering with local agencies to provide additional mental health support, and many schools are making an effort to prioritize students’ social-emotional well-being with this transition. So I do feel schools are aware. But this is something that parents should absolutely inquire about. What additional supports are in place for our children? How will the school environment attend to students’ mental health? How are teachers expected to make referrals for student mental health concerns? Who can we reach out to if we have concerns about our student? Parents and families should be asking these questions and holding schools accountable for prioritizing students’ mental health.
For more information, Dr. Gilstrap recommends the following resources for parents and families:
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