North Star Journey

How to help kids and teens with their mental health, students weigh in

Kids may be back in the classroom, but it is not back to normal.

Last year, nearly a third of Minnesota students reported they struggle with long-term mental health problems. Girls, in particular, say they are feeling persistent sadness. Rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed. And there aren't enough mental health professionals to help.

Schools are on the front line of this fight, and many say this crisis could usher in a new way of looking at education.

This special In Focus explores how to help students deal with the mental health crisis by talking with three experts: Benita Amedee, Cedric Weatherspoon and Keela Kuhlers, who work daily with children and teenagers. How can K-12 schools and parents increase mental wellness in kids and their communities?

four people smile for the camera
How can K-12 schools intervene in the student mental health crisis? That was the conversation for this month’s In Focus. MPR News host Angela Davis hosted and was joined by Benita Amedee, Cedric Weatherspoon and Keela Kuhlers.
Tom Campbell

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

1. Anxiety and depression look different in every kid

Keela Kuhlers: Anxiety can be expressed through discomfort in their body and that might be an upset stomach, fast heartbeat or racing thoughts. It can also be expressed through their behavior.

At school it could be kids leaving the classroom, kids chattering a lot, kids that look unfocused. Sometimes there's tears, sometimes there's frequent trips to the nurse or to the bathroom and it can look like they are not following the rules or not following expectations, when actually, there is discomfort inside of them.

Benita Amedee: Anxiety could look like ADHD. It can be confused with that, as they can be moving around and being nervous. Depression can be voiced by behaviors and withdrawal. Their bodies are trying to protect themselves and think they are in danger. During the pandemic, the whole world was scary to kids, their bodies were on fire, on edge.

2. Suicidal ideation has increased in the Black community

Cedric Weatherspoon: I primarily work with African American families and the pandemic was very impactful to them. They were dealing with a lot of disparities in mental and physical health. I would say in the Black community suicidal attempts or ideation have increased a lot. A lot of parents reach out when their kids are thinking differently, feeling hopeless, and feeling like their world is falling apart.

It's very difficult and scary for parents because they wonder what they did wrong and what they can do to support their kids. It's not about going to therapy and thinking everything is going to be fine, but it's about relationships with others. A younger person needs support from everybody, you have to look at the whole system as a whole, as a support. It takes a village to raise a child.

If you or a loved one is experiencing a crisis, call or text 988, Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text MN to 741741. Talk to trained counselors who care, 24/7/365.

If you or a loved one is at imminent risk, please contact 911 and ask for a Crisis Intervention Team officer.

3. Younger kids hide their feelings to not cause disappointment

Kuhlers: I often hear kids are afraid to share their feelings because they are afraid they are going to upset somebody or make someone important to them disappointed. I had a student not that long ago come and share with me that she was having these thoughts, she was engaging in self harm. We talked about calling home and talking with family, and she got really upset and said, “But I'm the good kid.”

And I said, “Yeah, you're a great kid, and you're having some really big feelings, and you've got lots of people in your life who support you.” So I think by removing those barriers and opening those doors, kids can see it and can talk to you.

4. Some parents are less open to therapy than their kids

Amedee: We have to have parents say it’s okay for their child to go see the school counselor for therapy, and a parent might not be okay with it, too. Sometimes it is a barrier for some of our clients from different cultures. The word mental health does not exist in some of their languages.

Some say they will pray on it or that it's not that bad and they will work through it, all of those things. Even though kids are more open to the idea of needing therapy, parents might not be, and we're somebody that can just listen without judgment.

5. Boys should know it’s okay to be vulnerable

Weatherspoon: Boys are more relational, and they feel they need permission to be vulnerable. It is like, “OK, can I really be vulnerable in front of you? Or do I need to keep this wall up?” We should build these strong, trusting relationships where boys are able to trust that they can be vulnerable in many spaces.

For some of the young men I see, being vulnerable is not an asset in their lives. They have to have that wall up for protection in their communities. So the idea is to give them assurance that it's okay to be vulnerable.

6. Kids might disclose their biggest stories in the most random moments

Kuhlers: Listen with curiosity when you are going on walks, while you're doing a puzzle, or while you're engaged in some other reciprocal activity. Those are when the stories come in. I think starting off with: “Wow, thanks for telling me about this. I'm really proud of you for opening up and sharing, what else would you like for me to know?”

I think kids often worry that they will be received with some type of consequence if they disclose too much. And at that moment, just validating the listening and waiting for those spontaneous moments to come out, is really important. Also, asking them what they need from you is crucial.

7. Create a safe space at home

Weatherspoon: As parents, we tend to lecture and they need us to listen. Give them permission to talk freely and allow them to have an open dialogue. A lot of kids are afraid parents could overreact, feel disappointed or they are afraid to get in trouble by not allowing them to go to their friend's house or taking their phones away.

I think opening up and creating a safe space in your home is really valuable because it allows everyone at home to be comfortable talking about their feelings. Sometimes it seems like one of those magical things to do. 

8. There is sometimes no safe place for marginalized communities

Amedee: Home was safe, or school might have been safe, or maybe hanging out with your friends might have been safe. But even going back home, you were still very anxious, you wanted to see your friends and talk to them, you didn't feel comfortable at home, you couldn't go to school either. And then going out in the community, both with the killing of George Floyd and with the Asian hate crimes, nothing was safe. I'm not saying that these things weren't happening before, but it's just so prevalent.

For our kids, there are no words for that yet, some of them don't know what it's going on and they ask, “Why did these people hate me? I haven't done anything.” And they're still processing it now. There are no safe places because of the racism that's out there and keeps people worried all the time. 

9. Sober schools are a good option for kids struggling with addictions

Weatherspoon: I would say chemical dependency held in the educational setting is a work in progress. While there are a lot of sober schools that focus on chemical dependency and remaining sober, having to deal with a pandemic and mental health and chemical health at the same time, it's a specialty that a few providers can offer.

Regular sober schools have the staff and the resources in the building that help kids to remain sober. It's a great opportunity for many students to maintain sobriety and to get the intensive support they need outside of just treatment.

10. We should teach resilience

Kuhlers: Oftentimes, as adults, we feel like we want to alleviate discomfort for our youth and our children and we want to have the answers for them. Unfortunately, we don't have all the answers.

We don’t have a magic wand to make it all better but we should find out what is in our control to give the kids skills that are going to help them in the future. It's messy being human, and we don't know what's going to happen in the future, so the best we can do is just work to give them skills, support them, be consistent, be there when they fall down and celebrate those successes when they come.

Story Circle highlights

Earlier this month, MPR convened a story circle around this crisis and student mental health. Here are some testimonies:

Elizabeth Yang, who was a junior in high school and worked at her parent’s restaurant during the pandemic:

Before the pandemic, I was involved in a lot of activities like after school clubs. I was trying to be a top student. But when the pandemic hit, I felt like I went into a slump. And it made it worse having to be a frontline worker at the same time and dealing with customers on a daily basis.

Something that bothered me the most during the pandemic was when I would read news online about the pandemic, and hear people call it the Chinese virus. It hit me in a really negative way as an Asian American woman, and I'm not even Chinese, I'm Hmong.

Owning an Asian restaurant located in a white suburban area, we would have a lot of customers come in, complain, don't wear a mask and say, “Oh this is just a hoax.” And it really hurt, it harmed my mental health because it made me rethink my belonging in America.

Abby Neisen, who was a senior in high school when the lockdown happened

Prior to COVID, I was super involved in a lot of things. I still am, but I also struggle with anxiety. Before COVID hit I also started doing a lot of self exploration and finding my own identity privately as someone who identifies with the LGBTQ community.

When COVID hit, depression started settling in a lot more because I'm very much a people person and I was not able to interact or see anybody and it felt very isolating. I knew a lot of people were struggling with mental health so I wasn't going to try and talk to people about my LGBTQ identity when I wasn't even sure of myself.

Then I went up to college in Fargo where we were stuck in our dorm rooms, not being able to do classes in person, so I couldn't make any friends for my first year-and-a-half of school. So alongside the isolation of the pandemic, and then trying to figure out myself as a person as well as navigating college… you can understand the struggle of that.

Shelby Wandon, a student who was already struggling with substance abuse when the pandemic hit

Before I had struggled with a lot of mental health issues, I'd been in and out of a couple of different types of therapy and treatment. Then around high school, I realized that I also had a substance abuse problem. So in my junior year, I was moved into a sober high school… and I was really doing well in my sobriety.

And then all of a sudden, COVID hit and I wasn't able to go to school anymore. And we were doing everything online: school, AA meetings, NA meetings so that made it extremely difficult to reach out to people and I had noticed about a month into being on lockdown that my mental health was not doing as well.

I did end up relapsing during the lockdown, so that was a major setback for me because in order to come back from that I had to do more treatment. But it was online again. So I was trying really hard to stay sober, improve my mental health and reach out to people through a computer screen. That made things really difficult.

Kayla Mielke, Anna Alvear and Ryan Engstler, students who found positive things from the pandemic

Kayla: I feel much better now. The uncertain times really helped me understand who I am. A lot of what I was doing was to please others and I actually learned to love myself and take care of myself as an individual rather than in a weird checklist way. I’m very happy with where I am. We all have that collective trauma from the pandemic that I would hope helps us understand each other. 

Anna: I interacted with my family a lot more and I learned a lot more Spanish over the time period when we all had to stay at home and isolate. I got a lot more into running and playing tennis with my parents because I couldn't see anybody else. So for me, my inner family got a lot closer.

Ryan: I would say the return to in-person learning and being back in the classroom really brought forth such an appreciation for the teachers, the maintenance staff and everyone that makes school as a system work. The pandemic has made me a lot more grateful for what I have. Gratitude came out so much stronger after the pandemic.

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above.

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