School-based therapist offers timely advice on how to help students with mental health issues

As parents and school leaders wonder how to deal with student mental health issues due to the pandemic, increased isolation and heavy use of social media, it seems to come down to the basics. .

That was the message from Tharaha Thavakumar, a school therapist with Genesee Mental Health, in a Zoom meeting with the media on Friday.

“I think we just have to do more good, with the way everything is in society,” she said. “I think we should not normalize violence. I think we need to start seeing kindness and goodness, and other things that are happening in the world that are not violent.

That’s a tall order, given that social media has pushed the boundaries of fun and harmless posts into dangerous territory. Thavakumar’s lecture, sponsored by Rochester Regional, stems from a TikTok challenge to kids across the country. They were encouraged to participate in a “Shoot Up Your School” challenge on Friday December 17th. While some districts across the country have closed the school for the day, many others, including schools in the city of Batavia, have tightened their security protocols and appointed school resource officials. and / or the local police on site or nearby just in case of an event.

No shootings were reported on Friday, but even the anticipation of such events can lead to “heightened awareness,” Thavakumar said. While there has been no imminent threat, the thought of someone bringing a gun to school and using it can certainly cause “a lot of anxiety for parents, teachers, faculty, students. students, ”she said.

Living in an online world..

“It is unfortunate that social media has this power to cause these threats and angst,” she said. “We have already had a difficult year, right after distance learning and blended learning. “

Take the pandemic and the stress associated with it, and then add “these societal threats” to it, and it really does have a negative impact on mental health, she said.

“It is always first that humans go towards the negative; it’s our way of looking at it, ”she said.

Having children of her own, Thavakumar understands the need to weigh every situation to determine the level of safety or danger. Her teenage son didn’t want to go to school after hearing about the challenge the day before. Her mother suggested they wait and see what, if anything, happens on Friday before making a final decision. On Friday, they came to a mutual conclusion.

“My kids went to school today, I felt confident enough about being safe at school. I knew my son would be surrounded by children he knew, ”she said. “The children I work with were very anxious; they had lockdown drills. In fact, living it is scary, it’s something very traumatic that kids have to go through… a pandemic and masks, school shootings and threats seem to happen more frequently. It’s a reality that children face, so it’s a constant trauma.

These intense feelings can make it very difficult to focus on academics, she said, and children adjust to “fight or flight mode” and acquire “a lot” of physical ailments, poor sleep and health problems. mental.

“And then we wonder why kids can’t do well in school because they’re in constant survival mode,” she said.

Communication is the key …

As Batavia High School principal Paul Kesler and senior Kylie Tatarka pointed out at this month’s city schools board meeting, good communication is crucial in helping students. children to cope with. The two high school members talked about a strategy of having counselors visit students in class to check on how everyone is doing. This corresponds to Thavakumar’s advice.

“Talk to the kids and work on building relationships. If you, as a parent, notice your child withdrawing, ask them for help, ”Thavakumar said. “Just be aware… kids go through a lot. If they say they are nervous, ask them why. Validate what they’re feeling, and I think that’s the most important thing we’re missing. Often times it was like everything was fine, everything will be fine. No, it’s okay to be upset.

If a child doesn’t want to talk to their parents, then find someone they trust who they can talk to and who they will talk to, she said. Children worry about what’s going on in the world, she said, and having a trusting relationship lets them know there is someone to turn to when needed.

How to start …

The School Mental Health and Training Center offers articles, assessment tools and advice on how to manage a mental health and emotional well-being issue. The site also has mental health conversation starters to offer examples of what parents might say to get things done with a child with tight lips.

This toolkit provides sample prompts for a variety of situations or concerns as well as tips on how to discuss good mental health habits in students and how to create a safe, caring, and appropriate atmosphere. age for ongoing conversation and dialogue with children and youth.

Instead of asking a yes / no question, such as “Are you okay?” The site suggests starting a conversation that invites your child to share beyond a one-word response. These may include:

• “It looks like something is going on. Let’s talk about what’s going on.
• “I’ve noticed you’ve been down lately. What is going on?”
• “Looks like you haven’t been yourself lately. What’s up?”
• “You don’t look as ______ as you usually do. I would love to help if I can.
• “No matter what you’re going through, I’m here for you.”
• “It can be embarrassing, but I would like to know if you are really okay. “
• “I haven’t heard you laugh (or seen you smile) in a while. Everything is fine?”
• I am worried about you and would like to know what is going on so that I can help you.

Not all conversation topics have to be questions, the site says, and many times a kind statement and a moment of silence is enough for someone to start sharing.
When you notice a change in behavior, it’s important to focus on the reason or emotion behind the action rather than the action itself. Avoid asking “Why are you (not) ______?” And, instead, state what you notice and what might be behind the behavior.

For example:

• “I have noticed that you seem more anxious on Sunday evening. What is going on?”
• “Have you noticed that you are not eating all of your dinner lately?” I wonder if something is bothering you.
• “I haven’t seen you play basketball like before. What’s up?”

Noting and asking questions about a child’s behavior without being judgmental avoids a typical “good / bad” dynamic that also demonstrates worry and care, he says.
Thavakumar’s advice to put more emphasis on the good in the world lessens what the site calls “a reinforcement of the negative stigmas.” The New York State Mental Health Association urges adults to monitor and discuss ways in which students are practicing good mental health and wellness skills.

For more information, visit the School Resource Center at

Norma A. Roth