Adult problems are not just for adults.
Kids pick up on adult stress and mental health concerns more often than some might think, said Sarah Gruber, a student service specialist at Madison and Jefferson elementary schools in Janesville.
Gruber said she sees students struggling with adult problems such as financial hardships and housing issues. That can develop into depression or anxiety if children don’t talk to someone about it—especially at this time of year when daylight is limited and the weather keeps people indoors.
In 2016, 25.6 percent of Rock County high school students and 18.6 percent of middle school students reported experiencing symptoms of depression, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Almost 16 percent of middle and high school students in Rock County reported they had considered suicide, according to the survey.
Gruber said people are paying more attention to youth mental health problems as the stigma around them slowly evaporates.
“I think as a community and a society, we’re more willing to talk about (mental health) stuff because we’re educating ourselves on it more,” she said.
Gruber stressed that Janesville students have access to specialists at all times.
Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change, a group that promotes a safe community for youth, offers a mental health first-aid class to teach adults how to help young people, said Shari Faber, project coordinator for Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change.
Depression is more pervasive than sadness, said Dan DeSloover, a counselor at Mercyhealth Behavioral Clinic-Janesville. It can last weeks or months and often impairs functioning.
Depressed adults might exhibit a lack of motivation, feelings of worthlessness, changes in sleep or changes in appetite, and might express thoughts of suicide or death, DeSloover said. They might withdraw socially, become increasingly irritable and experience physical pains.
Symptoms of depression aren’t much different in children.
Children most commonly exhibit behavioral changes or shut down when depressed, Gruber said. Kids usually don’t understand what these feelings mean or why their bodies feel different.
Mental health professionals often see an uptick in depression in winter, DeSloover said.
Shorter days and less sunlight can cause depression for some people, he said. The holiday season can be especially difficult because it triggers unresolved issues or grief.
More students show signs of depression in school once January rolls around, Gruber said. A mix of seasonal factors and students being more comfortable in school contributes to more visits to counselors, she said.
Sometimes, counselors talk to kids who show signs of depression because their parents cannot afford gifts or winter essentials such as hats, coats and gloves, she said. Schools accept donations to help kids who don’t have what they need.
Struggling students often have parents who are struggling, Gruber said, and the parents’ conditions influence their children’s mental health.
For some, the parents’ conditions can be traumatizing, which is why it’s important for kids to have resources in school, she said.
Counseling in school
Gruber’s goal is to get kids talking. She may color or play games with kids first to make them feel comfortable.
“Something as simple as bringing markers and paper out, it lets them use their creativity and they just start talking,” she said.
Once kids talk, Gruber can identify the source of their problems and help them find solutions. In more serious cases, she can connect students and their families to an outside resource for additional help.
Students often are referred to counselors by a teacher, Gruber said. School counselors also teach lessons on emotions and mental health in classrooms so students become familiar with what they do.
How to help
Parents should contact school counselors if they think their child is acting strangely or showing signs of depression, Gruber said.
It can be difficult to tell if a young person’s behavior is caused by a mental health challenge or typical adolescent development, Faber said. Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change’s youth mental health first-aid class teaches adults how to determine if certain behaviors are normal or a sign of concern.
About 400 people have taken the course over three years, Faber said. It is free and open to any adult ages 18 years or older.
“The more people in our community who know how to recognize and respond to these issues, the better for our youth,” Faber said. “If we can get them connected to treatment earlier in their illness, the outcomes will be better.”
DeSloover recommends adults see their primary care doctors if they are worried about depression. Doctors can rule out other medical causes and recommend counseling if needed.