Heading back to school can be a real drag for many students, and, as it turns out, for their parents.
For elementary and high school students, the end of summer can bring on the blues for a lot of reasons. Summer is synonymous with relaxing, having fun, and unstructured time. Much of that changes in the fall when free time is replaced by schoolwork and extracurriculars.
For those heading to college, there are additional factors that can contribute to depression, including homesickness.
To help parents and students recognize the symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses, Mental Health America (MHA) offers an annual Back to School toolkit featuring fact sheets, worksheets, posters and more. As MHA notes, half of all mental health conditions start by age 14.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of depression is an important first step in getting help and treatment more quickly.
Understanding the Signs of Depression in Children
Depression looks different in kids than it does in adults, says psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, in a recent article.
“Rather than sadness, depression tends to look more like irritability in kids. Unfortunately, many parents think their child’s agitation stems from adolescent mood swings, and a child’s depression goes undiagnosed,” Dr. Morin writes.
Morin also points out other changes in a child’s behavior could signal depression – staying home all the time, trouble sleeping and trouble waking up. Further, parents should listen carefully to their children, paying particular attention to statements like, “No one likes me,” or “I’m going to get picked on.”
Likewise, Mental Health America offers the following signs of possible depression that parents should look for in their children:
- Having trouble with schoolwork
- Not participating in activities they used to enjoy
- Anger and rage
- Overreaction to criticism
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Rebelling against parents, teachers, or other authority figures
If a parent suspects their child is struggling with depression, they should ask them questions phrased positively, like: “what’s the best part of your day?” or “what brings you joy at school?” If the child can’t answer with anything positive, he or she may be experiencing undiagnosed depression.
College Students and Depression
College students face a completely different set of stressors. They are often living away from home for the first time and experiencing life without the parameters set for them by their parents. They may not eat well or sleep well. Additionally, they may worry about money and face difficult choices about drugs and alcohol.
The social pressures of living with new roommates, making new friends, and navigating new social structures and rules can cause added stressors.
Signs of depression in a college student can include social withdrawal, increased alcohol and drug use, skipping classes frequently, and feeling irritable and angry. While college can bring a change in sleeping habits, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much can signal a deeper issue like depression.
If your college student is demonstrating signs of depression, they are not alone. According to an assessment conducted by the American College Health Association, nearly 1 in 5 university students cited depression as a factor that has impacted their academic performance.
Parents Can Also Suffer Back-to-School Depression
It’s not just students who can experience back-to-school depression. Parents have their own end-of-summer issues. No more slow summer business days, no more vacations, and in some cases, no more managing their children’s lives and schedules.
For Jane, a mother of two in Massachusetts, September had always been the start of her new year. She loved going back to school when she was a child and still loved the crispness in the air, cool nights and warm days. But when her children went off to college, September became a bleak, lonely time.
“The start of school can often trigger extra reflection on how quickly time passes and how much things change,” Jill E. Daino, a social worker and New York City-based therapist, told ABC News in September 2017. “Time is one of many things we have no control over, so whether someone is ready or not, the start of the school year is here. For some moms whose identity is profoundly shaped by being a ‘mom,’ the start of a new school year marks another step in that child’s move toward independence.”
While the Mayo Clinic defines empty-nest syndrome as a “phenomenon in which parents experience feelings of sadness and loss when the last child leaves home,” the nest doesn’t have to be completely empty for those feelings to occur. Even the transition to high school can lead to longer days for the student – and lonely days for their parents.
“I was now alone most of the time, so I was blue and missing my children,” Jane explained. “I had been so accustomed to doing everything for them and, suddenly, it felt like I had no value.”
The Mayo Clinic suggests keeping busy or taking on new challenges, like looking for new personal or professional opportunities. Most important, they say, is getting into your own routine.
“I really tried to pick up the pace at my job,” Jane said, “and it worked to alleviate my blues a bit.”
Depression Treatment for Parents and Students
The “back-to-school blues” are much different than clinical depression. If parents think their child may be depressed, there are several steps they can take. According to NAMI, parents should talk to their child’s pediatrician or find a mental health professional. Additionally, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, offers resources for parents.
For students and parents, back-to-school can be an exciting time full of hope and possibilities. Recognizing and treating the symptoms of depression can help it stay that way.