Back to School: Navigating Education, COVID-19 & Mental Health

Returning to in-person school after experiencing many changes during the pandemic can be overwhelming and even scary for both you and your child. In these times, it’s important to remember that you and your child are resilient.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families experienced loss—including a loss of normalcy, routines, employment, financial resources, loved ones, security, social activities, and more. 

For children and teens, these changes disrupted not just their social experiences, but also their education. As caregivers, it’s important to recognize the signs that your child may be struggling with their social, emotional and mental health. 

Keep reading for tools from Valera Health’s clinical team of mental health experts to help your child adjust to the new school year and to grow their social, emotional, and learning skills along the way!

 

Signs that Your Child May Be Struggling with Their Mental Health

Although both children and adolescents may struggle with their mental health, the way this is presented can appear differently in each due to their different developmental ages. 

For instance, both children and adolescents might experience an increase in anxiety and/or depression, however younger children may struggle to understand or put words to how they are feeling. Therefore, their more obvious symptoms can be observed through their behaviors. Examples of these behaviors include frequent tantrums, frequent nightmares, disobedience or aggression, hyperactivity, excessive worrying, obsessive ritualistic behaviors, or avoidance of bed or school. 

Both children and adolescents may also experience a lower tolerance for stressful situations, poor concentration, changes in their eating or sleeping habits, poor school performance, and increased reports of physical ailments. Additionally, adolescents may develop negative beliefs about the world around them, such as a perceived lack of safety or hopelessness. Adolescents may also engage in increased risk behaviors, as well as experiencing unusual “highs” or “lows” in their mood. 

 

Responding to Your Child’s Mental Health Needs

Being a parent and caregiver is a huge job in its own right, let alone during a pandemic. Any child is at risk for developing mental health concerns, but knowing the warning signs and building a toolbox can help improve their health outcomes. 

Here are some tips & tools to help make your job easier…

Remember, you are not alone. Practice talking to your child about their mental health. Active listening and validating your child’s feelings can help create a safe space to explore what’s going on beneath the surface. Let your child know that it’s okay to not be okay. Normalize having a range of emotions and be a role model by talking about your own feelings and experiences in a healthy way. 

Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions while also understanding your child might need time to feel ready and comfortable sharing. Reassure your child they are not at fault for struggling with their mental health. Children may internalize their conditions as a personal fault or fixed part of their personality. 

Helping to fight this stigma and reframe how your child views themselves can help promote a positive self-esteem. Celebrate your child’s strengths and promote healthy outlets and social connections. Set clear and consistent routines and expectations. Practice your own self-care and create a self-care plan for your child.

Preparing to Go Back to School

In the whirlwind of the back to school season, many parents and caregivers express feeling overwhelmed with knowing where to get started. For some, this might be your first time sending your child off to school and for others, their children may have experienced disruptions in their learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s natural to have questions and concerns about what to expect this school year and how you can support your child with navigating any new changes that might come up. That’s why our clinical team has put together some recommendations and guidelines to help you start this school year off right!.

To prepare your child for their change in routine, it’s helpful to create up a predictable day and night routine for your child before the first day of school. This will allow them to build healthy sleep habits as well as get them into a rhythm that will make the transition to school smoother. 

Make a list of any concerns that you or your child might have. Writing these out will provide an opportunity to process these concerns and to brainstorm possible solutions together. 

Discuss with your child what the school day will look like. Explain any new or unfamiliar routines and make a plan for transportation to and from school each day. If your child plans to bring themselves to school, consider having them practice their route ahead of time. Gather any needed tools for school in advance such as a backpack, writing utensils, notebooks, etc.. We recommend checking to see if your school has a list available. 

If your child has any dietary needs, talk to their school in advance to make a feeding plan and to learn about their options. For young children, start implementing learning into your child’s day to day through fun activities. This will help spark their interest in growth and get them excited about school. 

Social Emotional Building

During the pandemic, many children and families experienced social isolation among other hardships. Your child may benefit from opportunities to practice their language vocabulary, communication and social emotional skills. Sesame Street in Communities has some great resources to help your child grow these skills as they prepare to enter new social situations. 

Also consider pretend play to help your child process their feelings about school both before and during the school year. Building connections between your child and their community—such as through sports, clubs, and recreation centers—will provide your child with opportunities to foster their talents while also developing healthy social bonds in a structured and supportive setting.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Schools

Your child may experience periods of learning from home due to COVID-19 quarantines, lockdowns or even some snow days. 

Although these events are hard to predict, we can do our best to prepare for these possibilities to make these transitions smoother for you and your family and to mitigate disruptions in learning. 

Here are some questions to ask your child’s school to better know what to expect: 

  • Ask about school arrival/departure times and locations. 
  • How is the school managing social distancing, cleaning, face masks, ventilation, and other hygienic measures?
  • How will the school respond to COVID-19 cases and are there policies regarding testing, timelines to return to school, and homework support? 
  • Learn what the plan will be for recess, lunch time, extracurricular activities and other school facilities such as the library and gym. 
  • Discuss what support is available to promote students’ mental health and wellbeing. 
  • If your child is transitioning schools, they may not have had the opportunity to visit ahead of time. Contact the school to see what options are available for touring the school.
  • If your child has an IEP or 504 accommodation plan in place, or if you feel your child might benefit from one, discuss with the school how they plan to meet these accommodations and provide any testing if needed.

During the pandemic, many children and families experienced social isolation among other hardships. Your child may benefit from opportunities to practice their language vocabulary, communication and social emotional skills. Sesame Street in Communities has some great resources to help your child grow these skills as they prepare to enter new social situations.

At-home Learning

Whether you and your child are new or experienced with at-home learning, it is important to set up an environment that will be intuitive to your child’s educational needs as well as your household environment. This can be done through staying connected with your child’s school to keep up-to-date with learning assignments, expectations and progress, as well as any learning challenges. 

Set up a daily home and learning routine that is predictable and clear. Help your child follow their routines through building their independence and time management skills. Set up a comfortable workspace for your child. Check in regularly with them about their feelings and any concerns they may have. Provide praise and encouragement for their efforts. If you are in need of technology assistance, consider reaching out to other parents, the school, or your local library for support. 

Finally, don’t forget to practice your own self-care! Setting personal boundaries is also helpful. Remember to be kind to yourself, especially when faced with a role you may not have anticipated taking on.

Final Thoughts & Additional Resources

Here are additional resources to help you and your child prepare for back-to-school:

Here are some helpful resources that you or your child can use:

  • NAMI HelpLine — Call #1-800-950-NAMI (6264), text #62640, chat nami.org/help or email at HelpLine@nami.org
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — Call 800-273-TALK (8255), available 24/7
  • Crisis Text Line — Text NAMI to 741-741
    • Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.
  • National Crisis Text Line — Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org 
    • Connect with a trained crisis counselor. 988 is confidential, free, and available 24/7.

If you feel your child may need to speak with a professional for ongoing care, your primary care provider and/or insurance plan can be a good place to start for referrals. Valera Health also offers telemental health for children and adolescents, including individual therapy and psychiatry services. Visit www.valerahealth.com or click here to request a consultation.

Know the Signs: Suicide Warning Signs & Prevention Resources

Suicide can be a painful, touchy and even taboo topic. However, awareness, education and erasing the stigma are paramount to prevention. Suicidal thoughts can affect anyone—regardless of age, gender, racial identity, income, status or background. 

Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020. and second leading cause of death among people ages 10-14 and 25-34, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s estimated from CDC data that from 2015 to 2019, over 10 million adults in the U.S. reported having suicidal thoughts in the last year. 

If you have ever experienced suicidal thoughts, know that you are not alone, and that there is no shame in getting help. 

By knowing the warning signs of suicide, encouraging others—and ourselves—to seek help when experiencing suicidal thoughts, and sharing where to get help, we can change these harrowing statistics for the better and save lives. 

 

 

Warning Signs of Suicide & Suicidal Thoughts

  • Wanting to die
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Planning out a specific way (or ways) to end your life
  • Feeling trapped 
  • Feeling intolerable pain
  • Severe depressive feelings
  • Feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
  • Feeling like a burden to others
  • Withdrawing from hobbies and interests that once brought you joy
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
  • Constant agitation and/or anxiety
  • Giving away treasured personal belongings
  • Other behavior of preparing for death, such as drawing a will or writing notes to loved ones
  • Increased substance abuse and participating in other risky or reckless behaviors

While not everyone with the aforementioned warning signs/risk factors will attempt suicide, it’s still important to reach out for help if you or someone you know is at risk for suicide—especially if you or they present multiple warning signs of suicidal ideation. For more information on how to approach the subject of suicidal thoughts and ask for help—as well as how to offer help to someone else who may be suicidal—check out this article by Greatist

Bottom line: If you or a loved one are at risk of suicide, seek help immediately.

 
 
 
 

How to Get Help

There are resources and options available for those considering suicide or displaying suicidal warning signs.

In addition to emergency suicide resources, therapy can play a key role in recovering from suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses and mental health issues. Valera Health offers comprehensive, quality care for a diverse range of populations, including those ages 6 and up, the LGBTQ+ community, other minority groups and those experiencing acute to chronic mental illness, including those with Serious Mental Illnesses (SMI)—including those with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mood and personality disorders. To learn more or schedule a free consultation with a designated Health Connector today, visit www.valerahealth.com or click here.  

 

 

How to Stress Less this National Relaxation Day

If you’ve been feeling extra stressed lately, you’re not alone. Multiple studies—including Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report—show that U.S. workers are some of the most stressed out employees in the world. According to the report, globally workers’ stress levels are at an all time high— with working women in Canada and the U.S. among the most stressed workers in the world.

According to the March 2022 Stress in AmericaTM survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, stress among Americans about money and the economy is on the rise. 65% of respondents reported that concerns about money and the economy were a significant source of stress as of February 2022. Among other stressors, 81% of survey respondents reported that global uncertainty is a significant source of stress. 

National Relaxation Day, celebrated annually on August 15, is an important reminder that we need to take an active approach to reduce stress.

But first, in order to better understand how to reduce stress, we must understand the role it plays in our lives and how it affects the body and brain…

So then, what is stress?

Stress is defined as an innate response encompassing the body’s physical, mental and emotional reactions to external stressors. Stress can be both positive (eustress) or negative (distress). 

While stress is a totally natural part of everyday life, too much stress and/or chronic stress (long-term, elevated stress levels) can lead to behavioral, physical and emotional symptoms. 

Physical symptoms of chronic stress can include:

  • Aches & pains
  • Increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke (Nature Reviews Cardiology, 2018)
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches, dizziness or shaking
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle tension
  • Jaw clenching
  • Digestive problems
  • Weakened immune system
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Sleep issues (such as too much or too little sleep)
 
Emotional symptoms of chronic stress can include:
  •  Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Panic Attacks
  • Sadness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Avoidant behaviors
  • Problems with memory or concentration
 
 
 

Benefits of Implementing Relaxation & Stress Reduction Techniques into Everyday Life

Chronic stress can wreak havoc on our brains and bodies, which is why it’s so important to take an active approach in implementing healthy stress relieving techniques and activities into our daily routines. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, benefits of regulating stress levels through proactive stress management include:

  • Better sleep
  •  Lower muscle tension
  • Weight management benefits
  • Improved mood
  • Better interpersonal relationships
 Regulating stress levels can also play a huge role in preventing and managing anxiety.
 
As stated on The University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill’s Campus Health website, 
“Fortunately, there is much that can be done to keep stress and anxiety at a manageable level. Keeping a healthy ‘baseline’ is a cornerstone to managing stress and anxiety. Consistent sleep, regular exercise, good nutrition, healthy relationships and regular periods of relaxation and fun are vital components as well.” 
 
 

 

Meditation & Breathing Exercises

Meditation is the practice of training your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts and attention in order to achieve a calm, relaxed and emotionally stable state. Scientific research boasts many benefits of meditation, including stress reduction, lessened anxiety levels, increased emotional wellbeing, self-awareness, increasing attention span, improvement in sleep, decreased blood pressure and more. 

Meditation is also one of the most accessible forms of relaxation, since it can be done anytime, from anywhere. 

Youtube or apps such as Calm or Headspace are great go-tos for guided meditations. Here’s a favorite five-minute meditation exercise from Youtube. 

Breathing exercises, also known as “deep breathing,” have a multitude of health benefits, including promoting relaxation, decreasing stress and helping with depression and anxiety. 

Verywell Mind explains how breathing helps us to function more optimally: 

“Slow breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, also called the ‘rest and digest’ system. Its job is to conserve energy to be used for bodily processes such as digestion and urination. Deep breathing also activates the vagus nerve, which is like the boss of the parasympathetic nervous system, overseeing things like mood, digestion, and heart rate. It will also send more oxygen to your brain and other organs.”

For more information on the science behind breathing exercises—and easy breathing exercises you can do at home—check out this article.

The Valera Health app—available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play—also contains plenty of great mental health content written by mental health experts to help you live your best life. 

 

 
Going Green

Spending time outside in nature is linked to both cognitive benefits and improvements in mood, mental health and emotional wellbeing—regardless of how much time is spent in the great outdoors. 
 

A 2019 review by University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman, PhD, and his student Kathryn Schertz, revealed that green spaces near schools promote cognitive development in children and green views near children’s homes promote self-control behaviors. Similar results occurred when they studied adults assigned to public housing units with more green spaces nearby vs. those without. Those with more green spaces nearby reportedly showed better attentional functioningOther experiments have shown that being exposed to nature improves working memory, cognitive flexibility and attentional control.

No worries if you don’t have a forest in your backyard—urban parks, trees and other greenery filled spaces have similar benefits. Meaning that a midday stroll around your neighborhood or a nearby park can be equally as mood boosting as spending time in a nature reserve. 

Valera Health provides telemental healthcare services including therapy and psychiatry for those ages 6+, as well as in-app mental healthcare content created by our team of mental health experts (available for all Valera Health patients). Our mental health services are comprehensive, inclusive and tailored for you. We accept a large network of insurances as well as Medicare/Medicaid. To learn more, schedule your free consultation with a dedicated Health Connector or visit valerahealth.com.

 

Why Therapeutic Self-Care Practices Can Lead To Long-Term Wellbeing

Contrary to popular belief, self-care is about so much more than “treating yourself” and while “self” is in the title, it isn’t selfish.

After all, “Self-care is neither optional or glamorous. Self-care is an ethical obligation, for one cannot serve others from an empty vessel,” says Deborah Horowitz, Therapist Training Manager at Valera Health. 

That’s where therapeutic self-care comes in. 

What is Therapeutic Self-Care?

Therapeutic self-care is an approach to self-care rooted in overall wellbeing. This can include areas such as physical self-care, social self-care, mental self-care, emotional self-care and spiritual self-care, environmental self-care and financial self-care.

Vilma Vendrell, LCSW, MPA and Clinical Supervisor at Valera Health, defines self-care as “…the process of taking care of oneself with behaviors that promote health and active management of illness when it occurs.”

When it comes to our mental health, engaging in self-care activities can help increase distress tolerance, increase concentration, help manage stress, reduce risk of illness and improve our overall quality of life

“Self-care should not be a reactive plan but rather one that is incorporated in everyday life to help promote an overall healthy lifestyle,” advises Vilma Vendrell, Clinical Supervisor at Valera Health. “Self-care is important in maintaining healthy relationships with yourself and with others.”

Self-care also includes the management of mental illnesses as well as management of anxiety and depression symptoms. Self-care doesn’t have to be done alone, and can include self-care interventions by health providers through things like medication management, therapy and community support, which Valera Health offers through its providers and various group therapy programs.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), supporting self-care interventions has the potential to:

  • Strengthen national institutions to maximize efficient use of domestic resources for health
  • Create health sector innovations, including by catalyzing digital and health approaches
  • Improve access to medicines and interventions through optimal interfacing between health systems and sites of health care delivery

Ways to Practice Therapeutic Self-Care

1. Schedule Some “Me” Time

It’s important to take time out of each day to turn the focus inward and reconnect with yourself. 

Here are a few ideas on how to do this:

  • Enjoy a morning cup of coffee (or tea) distraction-free before you start work, or before your babies (or fur babies) wake up. Rather than chugging your morning caffeine supply, drink it slowly, taking time to enjoy each sip. 
  • Start a gratitude or open-ended journal and take a few minutes each day to write down how you’re feeling.
  • Block off a half-hour to an hour of time to watch your favorite show.
 
 
 2. Get Moving

Moving around doesn’t necessarily have to be laborious or require an intense sweat. Set timers and other reminders to get up and move to another part of the house besides the bathroom.  Walk to the mailbox, around the block, do a few jumping jacks, or any other favorite physical activity. 


3. Redefine Productivity

When it comes to work and productivity, it’s important to recognize your boundaries and enforce them. Focus on trying to separate work and home, even if you work from home. Have visual reminders for yourself and others that you are working and will address the home stuff after work. Change your workspace to make it homey but different from your home decor.  Change work spaces from time to time, if possible (such as working in a coffee shop instead of at home for the day).
 
 
4. Be Your Own Biggest Advocate
 
Your physical and emotional wellbeing should always come first. So, if you need time to take care of these needs, DO IT. This might look like skipping going out for the night if you aren’t feeling well, or speaking to your supervisor at work about your needs and limitations. While work is important, it’s not everything, and it can be easy to forget to enjoy life at home as well. 
 
 

Final Thoughts

Self-care can take many forms and finding the right self-care routine can look different from person to person. While developing a solid self-care routine can sometimes feel overwhelming, it is so worth it in the end. When you choose to take care of yourself, you make the conscious decision to develop healthy skills that can lead to long-term benefits.

If you’re having trouble coming up with and practicing a self-care routine, therapists and other healthcare providers can be a great resource. Valera Health offers many different affordable telemental health programs led by mental healthcare specialists. Request a free consultation with one of our health connectors to learn more, or visit valerahealth.com.  

Disparities in Access to Mental Health Care Among BIPOC: Tips for Finding the Right Therapist For You

Finding the right therapist for you is an essential element not only in a successful therapeutic experience, but also in treating mental illness. Despite a recent increase in social awareness regarding the disparities among various groups, BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) continue to experience challenges related to access and quality of care within the healthcare setting and, in particular, mental health care.

Prevalence of Mental Illness

If you have faced or are facing a mental health issue, you are not alone. Every year, millions of people experience a mental health disorder that requires some form of mental health care such as therapy or medication. In fact, 20.6% of American adults, or about 1 in 5, experience a mental health disorder. Mental illness does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or social status.

The following statistics illustrate the prevalence of any mental illness in the U.S. among demographic groups:

  • Non-Hispanic Mixed or Multiracial: 31.7%
  • Non-Hispanic White: 22.2%
  • Non-Hispanic Alaskan Native or American Indian: 18.7%
  • Latino or Hispanic: 18%
  • Non-Hispanic Black or African American:17.3%
  • Non-Hispanic Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian: 16.6%
  • Non-Hispanic Asian: 14.4%

Current Disparities

Mental illness impacts people of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. However, access to effective mental health care is not equal among all demographics. Studies continue to demonstrate that certain groups of people have less access to mental healthcare than their white counterparts, and the care they receive is of lesser quality.

Factors that contribute to the disparities in access and quality include:

  • Transportation issues.
  • Inability or difficulty to take time off from work and find suitable childcare.
  • Bias and racism among treatment providers.
  • Lack of sufficient healthcare coverage.
  • Mental health stigma among minority populations.
  • Language difficulties including a lack of treatment providers who speak languages other than English.
  • A mental health system that can be influenced largely by non-minority values and norms.
  • A belief that mental healthcare is ineffective or won’t work.

It is our responsibility to help improve access to quality mental health care for all. We have made progress as a society; however, more work remains to achieve true equality for all. Things you can do to help decrease the disparities among BIPOC and other groups include:

  • Communicate (via email, telephone, and/or social media) with federal and local legislators to support improving access to quality mental healthcare in your area.
  • Share your resources and information with others.
  • Support mental health organizations’ inclusion of minority staff and board members through voting and hiring of people from a variety of ethnicities and cultures.
  • Educate yourself and develop empathy and understanding, and what these groups may be experiencing, even when it’s different from your own experiences.

Finding the Right Therapist for You

If you are looking for mental health care, factors to consider when finding a suitable therapist include:

  • The language(s) in which your therapist is fluent.
  • The personal and professional experiences of your therapist (can this individual relate to what you are going through).
  • Location—For example, is the location convenient to your home, work, or other location you frequent regularly? Does the agency offer teletherapy?
  • Cost—If you have insurance coverage, does your plan cover the cost of services? If you are unsure, you can contact your insurance provider and ask questions about coverage, deductibles, and copays. If you don’t have insurance, what is the out-of-pocket cost of a session? Is therapy limited to a certain number of sessions?
  • Communication and therapeutic style—Is it talk therapy or educational? What communication style does the therapist most often use in sessions? What is your approach to working with clients?
  • The therapist’s training and education—Does the therapist have training in both evidence-based treatments and cultural competency?

It is okay and encouraged to ask your therapist questions about training and any other relatable experience. Questions can include:

  • Do you have experience working with a particular ethnic or cultural group? If so, how much experience?
  • What is your specialty?
  • What type of training do you have?
  • What is your experience in working with people within my cultural and ethnic group?

Conclusion

Disparities still exist in access and quality of mental health care. Finding the right therapist is an important part of addressing mental health issues, and it is a highly personal choice. If you find that a therapist isn’t a good fit for you and your needs, it is completely acceptable and encouraged to find another therapist who is a better match for you. Your therapist will not be offended, as his or her ultimate goal is to support your efforts in achieving your mental health goals. You need to feel a connection and trust with your therapist, and if you don’t, it is important to let your therapist know and ask for a referral to another clinician. Openness, trust, and honesty are essential for effective therapy. If you have specific requests or requirements of your therapist, it is important to let the agency know of your requests so it can do its best to accommodate you and suit your needs.

Sources:

  1. https://www.nami.org/mhstats
  2. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/July-2017/Disparities-Within-Minority-Mental-Health-Care#:~:text=As%20shown%20in%20the%20most,aren’t%20getting%20proper%20care.
  3. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/finding-good-therapist