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Back to School and Mental Health: Supporting Our Children for a Successful Year Ahead

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Date: August 17, 2023
Category: Mental Health

As the heat of the summer reaches its peak, and (hopefully soon) gives way to the cooler autumn breezes, it’s time for children and youth to return to school. This transition — filled with excitement, anticipation, and some natural apprehension — is an annual ritual for millions of students across our nation. As we prepare for the new academic year, it's crucial to remember that school readiness isn't just about having the right supplies, it's also about mental health.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is committed to promoting mental health and preventing substance misuse as a critical part of overall health and wellness. As part of this commitment, we want to equip parents, teachers, and students with resources and tools to foster a mentally healthy return to school.

Mental Health Matters

Often unseen and untreated, child and adolescent mental health challenges can significantly impact the ability to learn and develop. One in five children has a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder, yet many of them do not receive the help they need. Research tells us that there is a robust link between students’ mental health and their academic success. Therefore, awareness of mental health and potential for substance misuse should be a core part of every family's back-to-school preparation.

Promoting a Healthy Transition

The return to school can be a stressful time, whether it's a child’s first day of kindergarten, a transition to middle or high school, or just the end of the freedoms of summer. It's normal for children to feel anxious about these changes. Here’s how you can help ease their worries:

  • Communicate: Encourage your child to express their feelings about going back to school. Acknowledge their fears, make them feel understood, and reassure them that it's perfectly normal to feel anxious about these changes.
  • Create Routines: A consistent routine fosters a sense of security in children. Establishing a regular sleep schedule, eating healthy meals, and setting aside time for homework and relaxation can help children adjust to the rhythm of the school year.
  • Make Advance Preparations: If possible, attend any scheduled school orientations. Meeting teachers, locating classrooms, and becoming familiar with the school layout can help students feel more confident on the first day of school. And if there is not a scheduled orientation, make time to visit the school ahead of time to help children familiarize themselves with the environment. It can also be helpful to practice morning routines like getting ready for the bus or identifying routes to school.
  • Encourage In-person Social Interactions: Facilitate interaction with classmates to rekindle old friendships and make new ones. This may be one of the first years of schooling for many children without the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting normal social interactions. Social relationships can make the transition smoother and more enjoyable.

Continuing Support at School: The Role of Educators

Schools are crucial partners in supporting student mental health. Here are some ways educators can help:

  • Spot the signs: Regular training sessions for teachers on how to recognize the signs of mental health concerns in students are vital. Knowledge of how to respond in such situations can ensure that children in need receive the help they deserve.
  • Create safe spaces: Every child deserves a nurturing school environment where they feel safe to explore and express their feelings. Schools can promote this by establishing safe, caring spaces where students feel comfortable reaching out about their mental health without fear of judgement.
  • Integrate mental health into the curriculum: Incorporating mental health education into the curriculum is a powerful strategy to reduce the prejudice and discrimination associated with mental health and substance use conditions. This promotes understanding and empathy, fostering a supportive environment for all students.

Resources: Partners in Promoting Mental Health and Preventing Substance Use

The Department of Health and Human Services offers a wealth of resources for parents, teachers, and students alike:

  • Parenting and Caregiver and Youth Mental Health Resources — a collection of resources on parenting and addressing mental health needs of young people.
  • Child and Adolescent Mental Health Concerns: Signs and Symptoms — a comprehensive guide for symptoms of mental health and substance use disorders in children and youth.
  • Back to School Resources for Success — a collection of resources for children, parents, and educators on ensuring a safe return to school by caring for both body and mind.
  • "Talk. They Hear You."® Campaign — a national youth substance use prevention campaign that helps parents and caregivers, educators, and community members.
  • Early Childhood Mental Health Programs — as a part of its mission to reduce the impact of substance use and mental illness on our communities, SAMHSA funds programs that promote and support the health and wellness of young children and their families.
  • StopBullying.Gov — parents, school staff, and other adults in the community can help kids prevent bullying by talking about it, building a safe school environment, and creating a community-wide bullying prevention strategy.
  • SchoolSafety.Gov — provides schools and districts with actionable recommendations to create a safe and supportive learning environment where students can thrive and grow.
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline1-800-662-HELP (4357) is a confidential, free, 24/7, 365-day-a-year information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
  • — a user-friendly website, designed for the general public, to help people identify available resources, explore unbiased information about various treatment options, and learn how to reach out to get the support they need for issues related to mental health, drugs, or alcohol.
  • 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline — If you or someone you know needs support now, you can contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Simply call or text 988 or chat

As we approach the new school year, let’s make ‘Caring for Every Child’s Mental Health’ a priority. Every child deserves to have a successful academic year, and by equipping young people with mental health support, we are setting them up for a healthier and brighter future. This year let's commit to making the back-to-school transition about physical and academic readiness and about mental preparedness. Together, we can help build and support resilient young minds and allow every child to thrive, enjoy academic success, and reach their full potential.