Social Struggle: Back-to-school anxiety heightened by pandemic

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Being nervous about going back to school is common, but when you add all the changes and challenges of an ongoing health crisis, mental health professionals say it can be a lot for children to manage.

“Now, we’ve got that heightened, other factors that are creating anxiety like wearing a mask or not wearing a mask,” Bridget Nolan, a limited licensed psychologist and licensed professional counselor, said. “There’s anxiety on both ends for children and parents, too.”

Nolan is one of 45 other clinicians at Child and Family Psychological Services in Kalamazoo and Portage. She said overall, they are seeing at least 2,500 patients a month, many for anxiety. According to the office, of those patients, about 32% are ages 17 and under.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in referrals since the pandemic started,” she said.

She said some of their clinicians are seeing 25 to 30 patients a week, while others are seeing as many as 60.

“Our clinicians are having a hard time keeping up with the need,” Nolan said.

Paula Fritchman said her daughter, Evie, has always been a social butterfly.

She said when Evie had to attend second grade virtually because of the pandemic, she noticed significant changes in her behavior.

“It just kind of went down hill with each month of the pandemic,” Fritchman said.

Fritchman said Evie was independent and energetic in kindergarten and first grade, but now, she’s much more emotional and clingy. Even more reserved about new, large groups of children. The change in behavior is something Fritchman said she worried about ahead of Evie’s entrance into third grade.

“Is she feeling safe? Is she worrying all the time? I’ve seen just so much worry with her about COVID,” Fritchman said.

Evie’s behavior changes are not uncommon, according to Nolan. She said there has always been a need for mental health services, but that she’s never seen that need for so many people at one time.

For this report, News Channel 3 also reached out to mental health professionals at Kalamazoo Child and Family Counseling in Portage.

Jeffrey LaPonsie, the owner and director, said via email, that between March and May 1, 2021, about a third of their phone calls were for a new, young patient seeking help for COVID-related anxiety.

LaPonsie declined News Channel 3’s request for an interview, only because he said he didn’t want to take time away from his patients.

A Jama Pediatrics report released Aug. 9, noted the number of kids around the world struggling with mental health issues has likely doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The study found depression and anxiety are the most common mental health struggles among young people, with 1 in 4 experiencing elevated symptoms of depression and 1 in 5 experiencing higher levels of anxiety.

Nolan offered some recommendations to parents if they notice their child may be struggling mentally, emotionally or socially.

She said a guardian’s attitude is critical and so is listening. Instead of dismissing a child’s feelings and saying something like, “you have nothing to worry about,” Nolan said it’s better to listen and allow the child to express their worries. From there, she recommends expressing and showing the child support.

Ways to ease back-to-school anxiety, according to Nolan:

  • Get your home ready
  • Re-establish a routine, including a bedtime routine
  • Get your child involved in the back-to-school preparations

Nolan said those practices can help a child to thrive in new or abnormal situations. She said it also helps them to feel a stronger sense of control and responsibility.

Every child is different, and every child will handle situations differently. Nolan said parents need to know what “normal” is for their child in order to determine whether their behavior changes may require professional attention.

Normal back to school anxiety versus Something more significant, according to Nolan:

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Disturbances with emotions or mood. Is your child having unexplained bouts of crying, anger or irritability?
  • Extreme clinginess with caregivers

If those symptoms persist beyond two to three weeks or if they are really interfering with the child’s daily function, Nolan recommends talking to your pediatrician.

Seeing how Evie has changed, Fritchman said she fears her daughter’s fears will be amplified when she steps into a classroom full of all new classmates, some who will be masked and some who won’t.

The Kalamazoo County Health Department announced a mask mandate Aug. 18 requiring young students and staff in kindergarten through sixth grade to wear masks this fall.

That same day, Parchment School District, where Evie would be attending third grade, announced they would be adhering to the county health department’s mask guidelines.

News Channel 3 interviewed Fritchman prior to the aforementioned announcement.

Nolan said it’s important for parents to remember that children have an innate ability to adapt and with that comes great resilience.

Despite her concerns, Fritchman said she is starting to see her little social butterfly spread her wings once again.

“She’s still outgoing, but it’s going to take her longer to get there than before,” she said.

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