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How parents can support kids' mental health as they head back to school

Coming out of the pandemic, mental health experts say kids are struggling with depression and anxiety at alarming rates.

NORTH BERWICK, Maine — The countdown for kids to head back to school is on, and with it comes some anxiety.

In Maine, one in six kids experience anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels, according to the latest Kids Count Survey

During the pandemic, a report by the U.S. CDC found 1/3 of high school students nationwide reported experiencing "poor mental health."

Emily Costrow, a social worker with Sweetser who works at Noble High School, says its more important than ever to focus on our kids' mental health. 

"If you think about the last few years, we had students who were in school, abruptly left, and had to transition back in strange ways," Costrow said. "Especially for kids with anxiety, it's really difficult to shift. Either they're anticipating everything that might be difficult or they're anticipating not wanting to be there at all."

Costrow has some tips to help any child or teenager prepare to get back to class. 

Start adjusting their schedule

From sleeping to eating and everything in between, get your kid to start making small adjustments to get them in a new routine. 

"It's getting back in shape in a way," Costrow said. 

Find things to look forward to

Talk to your teenager about the fun stuff that they might experience in the upcoming school year. It could be sports, music, or a club — even getting familiar with the class schedule or a teacher they are excited to have. 

Costrow says it is simply better to focus on the positive things. 

"Our brains naturally think of the worst things first. So really looking for things that are going to be good," she said. "You know what part of the building you're going to be in, who you're going to see at lunch, what activities are going to be starting again. Really start to focus on those things that make you like school." 

Go back to school shopping

Yes. Really. This is part of the positive-thinking practice. And you don't have to go all out — just a few new things that create some excitement can make a big difference.

"There's fun things about going to back to school. Go ahead and do some school shopping, get a new backpack," Costrow said. "There's a lot of equipment you can have to make you feel geared up and ready to go."

A lot of parents might want to have those hard conversations with their teens, especially if they are struggling with their mental health. Costrow says now might not be the best time.

Instead, find the positives. Do not dwell on what they are dreading and focus on what they can do to succeed.

"The difference is thinking about it verses preparing for it," Costrow said.

Costrow is one of about 50 school-based clinicians Sweetser has in schools across the state from Kittery to Bangor, according to the organization. 

She says there are not enough providers to meet the growing demand. For more information on the agency, you can visit sweetser.org.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please call the Maine Crisis Hotline: 1-888-568-1112.

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