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Mental Health Conversations to Have Before the School Year Begins

As a new school year approaches, many parents start planning back-to-school activities, scheduling school and sports physicals, and tackling school supply lists. Yet, mental and emotional health are also areas where back-to-school prep can come into play. Prepare your student for a successful school year by understanding the current landscape surrounding mental health concerns and considering what conversations you may want to have with your student before they step onto the school bus. 

Mental health concerns are on the rise 

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study examined mental health symptoms across four U.S. school districts from 2014–2018. The survey found that based on behavioral or emotional symptoms and level of impairment, 1 of every 6 students met the criteria for a childhood psychological condition—and recent research shows that mental health concerns among children and teens are increasing.   

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics showed rates of clinical depression and anxiety among young people doubled from 2020–2021. According to the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), in 2021, almost 42% of students felt persistently sad or hopeless, and nearly one-third experienced poor mental health. Even more alarming, 1 in 5 students (22%) seriously considered suicide, and 1 in 10 (10%) attempted suicide. 

Student stressors 

The United States Surgeon General declared a mental health crisis for children and teens in 2021, but there was already a growing mental health emergency for youth in the U.S. before the pandemic; with the number of children and teens experiencing feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and behaviors increasing 40% from the decade preceding the pandemic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic created new issues including a disruption in learning and increased social isolation due to the shift to remote classroom attendance and social distance.  

Experts have highlighted additional stressors around the pandemic, such as economic challenges, political polarization, climate-related disasters, and other factors that have created a “cascade of collective traumas that the nation is facing together.”  

In addition to the pandemic, increased gun violence has led to an uptick in the stress and distress young people feel. When individuals sustain a heightened level of anxiety, it can interfere with their learning because their attention is focused on the stressor and away from executive functioning, which plays important roles in learning, memory, and focus. 

The rise of social media has also added complexity to the mental health concerns of children and adolescents. Although social media has certainly brought about some positive changes in the way we communicate and connect with others, it cannot be ignored that social media has also been found to increase the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes. Experts caution that excessive social media use, particularly among young people, may worsen depression, anxiety, and social isolation. 

Although it is popular with children and teens, it has created a “culture of comparison,” which can have negative psychological outcomes, especially those who already have shown they have a negative self-image or are anxious about fitting in. 

According to a recent U.S. Surgeon General’s report, young people who have a social anxiety disorder or depression may spend more time online than they do with friends and peers in person. This may increase feelings of isolation, helplessness, anxiety, depression, and alienation. Furthermore, social media and prolonged screen time can influence an individual’s sleep patterns—and sleep loss is associated with higher levels of anxiety, stress, despair, and substance use. 

What can parents do? 

Parents should openly discuss mental health with their children as the new school year approaches as well as during the year as academic and social challenges arise. Speaking openly about these topics can reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and help children and teens feel supported and prepared for challenges that may surface. Here are some conversations parents may want to have with their children: 

  1. Stress management: School can be stressful, so it's essential for parents to talk with their children about how to manage stress. This may include discussing healthy coping mechanisms, such as taking breaks, going for a walk, or talking to a trusted adult. 
  2. Time management: Balancing schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and a social life can be overwhelming. Parents can help their children by discussing time management strategies, such as creating a schedule and setting priorities. 
  3. Social support: Having a strong support system can be helpful for mental health. Parents can talk with their children about building and maintaining healthy relationships with peers and adults. 
  4. Mental health resources: It’s important to discuss available mental health resources, such as school counselors or therapy services. Children and teens need to know that help is available if they need it. 
  5. Self-care: Encourage students to engage in activities that promote positive mental health, such as exercise, getting enough sleep, and participating in activities they enjoy. 

Parents can help their children feel prepared and supported for the new school year by having these conversations in advance of the school year and then continuing to check in regularly throughout the year. 


Abrams, Z. (2023, January 1). Kids’ mental health is in crisis. Here’s what psychologists are doing to help. Monitor on Psychology, 54(1). 

Abrams, Z. (2022, September 1). Stress of mass shootings causing a cascade of collective traumas. Monitor on Psychology, 53(6). 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2023, June 1). Mental Health Matters. Adolescent and School Health. 

New York Presbyterian (n.d.). Is social media threatening teens’ mental health and well-being? Health matters stories of science, care, and wellness. 

Pirdehghan, A., Khezmeh, E., & Panahi, S. (2021). Social media use and sleep disturbance among adolescents: A cross-sectional study. Iranian Journal of Psychiatry, 16. 137–145. 

Racine, N., McArthur, B. A., Cooke, J. E., Eirich, R., Zhu, J., & Madigan, S. (2021). Global prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents during COVID-19: A meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics, 175(11), 1142–1150.  

U.S. Surgeon General. (May 2023). Social Media and Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory.