How to Assist Your Mental Health During the Return Back to School

Franklin student Julian Tiana supports a teen over the phone during his shift at Youthline. Crisis lines like Youthline have helped students support themselves during the transition back to school. Photo by Maya Bryant 

Trigger Warning: Mentions of suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and anxiety attacks. 

“Hey, I am wanting to talk to someone about how stressful the first week of school has been for me. I feel so alone.”

“Hi, I am so glad you reached out for support tonight; returning to school can be so overwhelming and draining. Do you feel comfortable telling me what has been hard for you about the first week of school?”

(example Youthine conversation, not real)

Returning to school can feel remarkably overwhelming and lonely at the same time. 

Coming back to school is more dramatic than ever after leaving the familiarity of online school. Whether you are feeling regret about the immense amount of Advanced Placement classes you signed up for in a blur last year or you are struggling with having to deal with your anxiety surrounded by 2,500 students as opposed to in the comfort of your home, you are not alone. 

The Oregon Department of Education Care and Connection Week was Portland Public Schools’ attempt to ease the transition back to school. For some students, it felt important for the first week of school to be buffered with less homework and in-class content. But mental health problems don’t dissolve after the first week. Knowing where to go for support is crucial for teenagers to maintain mental health stability. 

Having options of where to look for support and trusting the support itself can be the hardest part.

 It takes an average of 10 years for most people to reach out for mental health support. Whether cultural stigma around mental health, the unknown, or past experiences are preventing you from reaching out, that is okay and it is important that you still feel heard and have a safe place to go. Hopefully, this article will be able to provide you with a few resources to keep in your notes app when you feel ready to reach out. 

Julian Tiana (12) is a volunteer on the Oregon Youthline and President of the ASB Mental Health Committee. Youthline is a crisis line that teens can reach out to through text, call, or chat. When you reach out to Youthline, you will be able to talk with a trained teen who will provide confidential support. Crisis does not look the same for everyone. It is okay to reach out to Youthline when your struggles range from stressing about a test to suicidal thoughts. Tiana describes the importance of Youthline offering support for big and little problems: “For some teens, once they establish that Youthline is a safe place to text, they can reach out with bigger issues. Like if they are having suicidal ideation or thinking of self-harm it is a lot harder to talk to someone you haven’t talked to before.” You are never a burden to Youthline.

Many people that reach out to Youthline for the first time are looking for someone to just listen, but it can be intimidating to not know what the conversation will look like. Tiana explains what a typical call or text may look like. “First there is a short survey and then the [youthliner] will say ‘Hey my name is (insert name here), what’s going on?’. And there is often some small talk right at the start and then leading into a question like ‘What made you reach out today?’. Then it is up to the contact’s discretion if they want to delve into detail or keep it simple. It really helps that it’s online so if you don’t know what to say you’re not staring at a face looking back at you. You can just take a breather.”

Youthline is particularly relevant during the beginning of the school year. “If you are facing a problem by yourself it can feel insurmountable. Knowing that you can talk to people about how they face their problems can make you feel less alone. Everyone is a peer [at Youthline, and] in the school transition everyone at Youthline is also going back to school and we are also nervous about junior, senior year, colleges, etc. Someone at youthline may be able to help you name all the emotions you are going through because they are also going back to school,” Tiana explains. Teens that reach out to Youthline and Youthline Volunteers are experiencing a collective strain on mental health during the transition back to school, which is why Youthline can be a helpful resource for teens looking for confidential, virtual, and relatable support right now. 

Youthline: open 4-10 pm PST. Text teen2teen to 839863 or Call 877.968.8491 (information can also be found on back of Student IDs).

Jed McClean is a social worker at Franklin in room SS-210. Reaching out through a support line may not be the best resource for all students. McClean explains, “I hope for any students who are experiencing mental health challenges that they have at least one teacher or coach or other staff member, that they feel like they have a comfortable enough relationship that they can have them be the first person to talk to. Experiencing some mild social, emotional discomfort, or mental health challenges, I hope that they have just that, the natural supportive relationship that they can connect with. That’s kind of a first step.” McClean explains further the next steps for students with more serious mental health challenges. “For students who are experiencing intense anxiety, little to no motivation, or withdrawing from friends and activities that used to bring pleasure, [you can] either talk with your assigned counselor, all of them are trained in mental health support, [or] myself and our other social worker Quan [Nguyen]. We know that not every student feels like they have that relationship. So we also have our SUN Program [and the] Student Health Center.” The Student Health Center has a therapist and BIPOC provider. You can make an appointment with or without insurance by visiting the Student Health Center, open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. 

“We also have our Mental Health Resource Webpage. It’s kind of like a one-stop for students who don’t feel comfortable talking to anybody in the school,” says McClean. The FHS Resource Webpage provides a thoroughly researched list of resources such as numbers, apps, and other ways to connect with some support. “We are always continuing to look at [the feedback form] to improve the Resource Webpage and make sure it feels like a safe and inclusive page for all students.” 

Resource Webpage: https://sites.google.com/pps.net/self-servicementalhealth/home

Feedback Form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScAldTUhbA3IDGCYvoJEUmwcONHR55OAfTJdoH36gel3sTeMg/viewform

Many students may be hesitant to share something vulnerable because they are concerned that a social worker will immediately reach out to their parents. McClean explains what it looks like to talk to a mandatory reporter like him or Quan: “We’re not just going to jump on the phone, we’re making sure it’s a plan that feels safe to the students.” It is normal to be cautious about who you talk to, and that is why the social workers take your safety and comfort seriously.

Dealing with mental health and mental illness can feel scary at school. For some students, panic or anxiety attacks are something that may come up during a hard school day. McClean tells of some tools that can be used: “Students can always come up to the Counseling office; the social workers, school psychologist, etc. will be able to sit with that student and guide them through some grounding exercises. A panic attack is anxiety bubbling over and overflowing your cup. What we want to do is offer some activities that involve taking slow, rhythmic breaths to help calm the heart rate. When we slow our heart rate we slow our cortisol and adrenaline production.” Students can always bring a friend to the counseling office with them if they are experiencing a panic attack. If a student feels more comfortable just sitting with a friend, there are things the friend can do to support the student. “Get into a relaxed position, palms raised up, and model what slow deep breaths will look like. Our brains have this really cool feature called mirror neurons, so if we see the person across from us is taking slow deep breaths then it triggers through mirror neurons a feeling of safety. [Mirror neurons] are the reason why therapy animals are so comforting and calming,” McClean says. 

Returning from the adversity of the pandemic and the solace of school in your bedroom carries mental baggage heavier than the straps of your backpack. Reaching out for support is a feat of immense bravery and courage, not weakness. Students are not a burden to the Franklin Social Workers, Health Center therapists, or any of the other resources listed within this article. Although not everyone has a mental illness, everyone copes with mental health. Remember, you are not alone, your struggles are valid, and you deserve support.  

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