In just over two weeks, Pinellas County Schools will open for the first time since spring.
Many families have stayed home due to COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of over 160,000 Americans. It’s been a stressful time for parents – but how has it affected kids?
In early July, panelists from three school districts, including PCS, spoke during a virtual town hall hosted by the West Central Florida Mental Wellness Coalition. The intent was to share tips and strategies for supporting children’s mental wellness over the summer and into the school year.
Supervisor of Clinical Care for Hillsborough County Public Schools, Michael Kelleher, shared sobering statistics on children’s mental health. Kelleher also believes that these statistics will increase post pandemic review.
Studies prior to COVID-19 showed one in 10 children are affected by mental health issues. Depression, anxiety disorders and ADHD are among the most common.
Kelleher also talked about the stigma associated with mental health issues.
Supervisor of the School Psychology Program for Pasco County Schools, Vicki Papaemanuel, believes the community must work to eliminate the stigma of mental health issues and help people find treatment.
“If one in five adults are affected by mental health issues, with how common it is, it would be great if we can look at it as a unifying opportunity,” she said, “that we’ve had some of these shared experiences and how can we help and support each other instead of using it as a potential barrier or making someone feel inadequate or different.”
Papaemanuel believes people should not be defined by mental illness.
“Anyone can learn coping strategies and go on to life a healthy successful life,” explained Papaemanuel.
Experiencing a traumatic event, such as abuse, death in the family, or even the current pandemic, can be overwhelming for children and affect their ability to cope. These stressors can lead to mental health disorders, explained Supervisor of Emotional Wellness for Hillsborough County Public Schools Elizabeth Tanner.
“It’s not always gloom and doom,” said Tanner. “There are many things we can do as a school system, community and society to help prevent the onset of mental health disorders.”
Tanner suggests looking at the strengths of each student and supporting them that way. She believes supporting a strong involvement with school is one way to prevent the onset of mental health disorders – including keeping students on a schedule, keeping them involved and doing well in their classes and connected with their friends and fellow classmates, whether in person or virtually.
“Everyone needs to acknowledge that we’re all aware of the uncertainty of these times,” said Managing Officer for Prevention, PCS, Lisa DePaolo. “As parents we are unsure of what’s up next, it’s a great time to be reminded as an adult we may not have control of what happens, but we can control how we react to the situation.”
To help children make the transition from home to school, DePaolo also suggested wearing masks at home if your children aren’t used to them. Keep masks around the house and in constant sight and explain to kids, “Shoes keep our feet safe, masks keep our body safe,” said Holly Saia, Director for Student Services for Hillsborough County Public Schools.
“Accept and confirm their reactions,” she said. “Understand it is uncomfortable, it is new. We’ll wear them little by little until it’s comfortable.”
Saia suggested parents of younger children consider watching Sesame Street’s video, “All About Masks,” with them, which teaches the importance of preventing the spread of germs.
Find the full webinar here.