On Childhood Mental Health

Today, I’m excited to share an interview with my wife, Rachel, who is a school counselor.

As I think back to my elementary and middle school years, I don’t recall my peers going through too many mental health issues. I was likely unaware. What are the type of issues you encounter in your daily work as a school counselor?

This is an interesting question to me because I do remember dealing with my own personal issues and also remember peers dealing with some issues as well. The difference was, I don’t remember having anyone at school to be able to talk to about them. I also remember it being a bit frowned upon to talk about what you might be dealing with. We had our teachers but, for me, they were often the reason or part of the difficulty I experienced. I remember feeling very alone.

Though a lot of the issues I deal with on a daily basis with students are similar to ones from when we were younger, there is a difference in that there is more openness when it comes to talking about mental health. There is still a very long way to go with the stigmas surrounding mental health and the diagnoses of many disorders but there is also much more of a willingness to talk about how to help.

The one thing I have to remember as a counselor and try to teach to those I work with is that the behavior the child is exhibiting is often the only way the student knows to get our attention. There is a lot more going on underneath that we have to figure out. Being patient and willing to take the time to figure out how best to help the child can be exhausting and often thankless but so important when it comes to childhood mental health.

What sort of interventions and job duties do you have that promote mental health in the school setting?

We have different jobs around the school and this is probably what leads to a bit of the confusion surrounding what we do every day. One of the main jobs of a school counselor, especially in the elementary setting, is to advocate. Not just advocating for the students but also for ourselves. We have a career that is very often misunderstood but so appreciated once a teacher or individual realizes the importance of addressing childhood mental health.

We advocate by being a voice. Children are not born with emotional intelligence. They learn coping skills by trying different methods to achieve the goal they are aiming for, but the coping skills they may use are not always the correct way to deal with a situation. As a child gets older, that emotional intelligence is not always growing as well. They may not always understand what they are feeling nor how their actions could make someone else feel. They act out because they are asking for help in the best way they know how. Our job is to come in and help them find their voice, that way they can ultimately advocate for themselves! By teaching children coping skills, emotional intelligence, and how to emotionally regulate (amongst other things, of course), we are assisting them in finding that voice.

What is one thing you wish people knew about childhood mental health?

The one thing I wish all people knew about childhood mental health is that almost every child, at some point in their life, will experience a mental health issue. It does not matter their background, their family situation, or if they have experienced trauma or not. Over the years, we have seen an increase in threat assessments (a check-in we do with children presenting with suicidal or homicidal ideation), an increase in children being diagnosed with anxiety, and an increase in students who are dealing with very adult problems at home. The best thing you can do for them is to be in their corner, establish a relationship with them, and prove to them that you care for and support them. Sometimes all a kid needs is someone who is willing to listen.

Teach that emotional intelligence as well by allowing children to express what they are feeling. Telling a child to stop crying or to “man up”, calling them names when they express a more “negative” emotion or ignoring a child who is trying to tell you about something that upset them are just a few of the ways in which you are stunting their emotional growth. If you are someone who reads with your child, take the time to talk about how the characters in the book may be feeling. Look at the facial expressions and ask your child to tell you how they think the character may be feeling. Something as simple as this can help to build empathy and grow that emotional intelligence.

Share one success story in your work as a school counselor.

Working with children, especially children who might be dealing with mental health issues, is a very thankless job. I am the one who pulls students out of instructional time for what may seem like a meaningless reason. I am the one who shows up when a student has reached a point where a classroom has had to be evacuated. I am the one who, ultimately, tends to work with students who are at the lowest point in their day. Thankfully I get the chance to work with students during the high points in their day as well, just not quite as often.

The success story that means a lot to me is one that happened yesterday. I have a student who I have been working with for well over a year. This student has been diagnosed with a couple of different things and is in a classroom for students with emotional disabilities. Getting through a day and not being called for this student is a success! BUT, yesterday I was having a pretty overwhelming day. My list was longer than the number of hours I had left and everything on my list had to be done within the hour. This student came to see me to get a snack and before even approaching my desk recognized that something was off with me. The student walked up to me, hugged me, and asked me if I was ok. This was a huge milestone for this student as this student is not someone who recognizes their own emotions let alone the more concealed emotions of someone else! Before leaving, the student made sure to tell me to feel better and that they would be thinking about me. I mean, whaaatt? This was wild! I was in shock, but what a cool moment to see this student recognize someone else’s emotions and show compassion towards what I was feeling.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with my readers today. Anything else you’d like to share about school counseling or about childhood mental health?

Listen, be patient, and show that you care. Kids are very resilient but they also can see right through a fake persona. The more authentic you are, the more a child will respect and potentially open up to you. Be the person you looked up to as a child!

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