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Your Child and Mental Health: What to Watch for and Steps to Take

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we provided information on the array of mental health services offered at Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools (GJPS). GJPS is taking the issue of mental health seriously and district leaders are working diligently to provide students with robust mental health services to address issues before they become problematic or escalate. In this final part of our mental health series, we provide parents with some tools to identify mental health concerns in their children and with community resources outside of the district.

Mental health is particularly important to monitor during the current COVID-19 pandemic we’re facing. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the outbreak may be stressful for some people, causing anxiety and fear. During this time, it is important to remember that everyone reacts to stressful situations differently. Many of the behaviors outlined in this article may indicate that this situation is causing stress for your child. If you notice a change in behavior, take time to talk to them about the outbreak, reassure them they are safe, limit your family’s exposure to news coverage, try to keep up with regular routines and set an example for them by taking breaks, getting plenty of sleep, exercising and eating well.

It’s important to note that the warning signs of a mental health issue may vary depending on the age of the child. According to the district’s administrator of school-based prevention and counseling, Lisa Kelley, if there is a significant change in their behavior, it could be a sign of a potential mental health issue.

“For children in pre-school to second grade, monitoring behavior is key,” said Kelley. “Children in this age group may not be able to verbally communicate how they’re feeling yet. They may show signs with new behavioral issues such as trouble sleeping, nightmares, more crying than usual, aggression, noncompliance, temper tantrums or separation anxiety.”

According to Kelley, children in upper elementary school also are most likely to show symptoms through behavior, though some may be able to verbalize it. Behavioral changes could manifest as more fears and worries than usual, not doing homework, performing poorly on tests, eating more or less, losing interest in activities they once

As students get older, such as middle and high school age, they may also exhibit other more serious behaviors such as running away, engaging in self-harm, having thoughts of suicide, and/or substance abuse. Signs to watch for include running away, inflicting self-harm, withdrawal from family and friends, writing about negative thoughts or suicidal ideation, talking about issues more and substance abuse, as well as some of the behavioral changes mentioned above.

If parents recognize these behavioral issues in their children and wish to be linked with an outside counselor, they are encouraged to reach out to their child’s school counselor. School counselors are very familiar with providers in the community and are able to make a recommendation of who will best fit each student’s needs. In situations where the child's struggles are mainly at home, school counselors can help parents with suggestions and help them find a counselor suitable for their family's unique situation.

“We maintain, and frequently add on to, a list of providers in the community, which is sent out to parents who reach out for assistance regularly,” said Kelley. “From that list, we’re able to refer parents to a variety of programming for a multitude of issues, from eating disorders to substance abuse to family dynamic situations.”

One community partner is Concord Counseling with whom school counselors have a well-established relationship as Concord has been providing preventative counseling services through a grant in Gahanna for years. When parents request help linking with an outside provider, Concord is often able to expedite referrals to their community agency so that families do not have to wait months to see a professional."

“Parents are ultimately the experts on their children,” said Kelley. “If they notice any behavior that is out of the norm, they are encouraged to reach out to our school counseling professionals.”

If parents need immediate assistance with their child’s safety because of self-harming or suicidal thoughts,​ ​Nationwide Children’s Hospital​ is a phenomenal local resource. Their On Our Sleeves​ ​c​ampaign specifically focuses on children’s mental health and they have resources for immediate care.

Last year ​Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools launched the Safe School Helpline​ as a resource for parents and students to anonymously address mental health issues and potential safety concerns before they become a crisis.

The helpline can be reached at 1-800-418-6423 ext. 359 or www.safeschoolhelpline.com

Parents also can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text "START" to 741-741 where a live, trained specialist will respond back.