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Parents, health professionals concerned about students' mental health as school year approaches

UAMS introduced a new program aimed at teaching educators effective methods to address mental health stressors for students.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark — Jamie Lee said she just wants her 7th grade son to thrive, after the hardships of the previous school year. She said last year impacted her son's mental health.

"He's really missed out on a lot of interactions with his friends and he knows that it's because we needed to stay safe," Lee said. "This delta variant has shown it's ugly head and we're forced to go back to wearing masks again which really stinks but we have to do what we have to do."

Along with regular student anxiety that comes with the start of school, a pandemic on top of that has been mentally stressful.

Nikki Edge is a professor at UAMS and serves as the new director of the Trauma Resource Initiative for schools. The brand new project was funded by the Blue and You Foundation in July to equip Arkansas school personnel with ways to handle students that are experiencing trauma.

Edge said that goes hand-in-hand with the pandemic. 

The program is a partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education.

"We have learned a lot from a brand new study that just came out two days ago in JAMA Pediatrics, which looked across 29 different studies of 80,000 kids around the world over the course of the pandemic," Edge said.

The study found that rates of depression and anxiety doubled over the course of the pandemic. 

Edge said it can be a combination of a lot of things. 

"For some it would be the social isolation. Disruptions to school. Disruptions to routine, hobbies, sports, and things that they love to do," Edge said. "For others it might be fears for their health or their parents' health. Some of them have obviously even lost a loved one." 

The new initiative, which Edge is overseeing, had their first training last week. The group emphasized in-person and virtual classroom strategies that teachers could use to support students, along with consultations for administrators. 

The goal is to offer training statewide. 

"One thing I would encourage parents to do is check-in with their kids. Find out what's on your mind, how are you feeling about going back, is there something that's making you nervous so you can address their specific concern," Edge said. 

She also said kids feel better when they know what to expect.

Parents are able to help their child most effectively when they're able to find the source of the concern. 

Parents should be considering what will be different for their child this school year opposed to the last. They can ask schools if there's an opportunity for a practice run, which gives them an opportunity to become familiar with school navigation such as drop-off areas or location of the cafeteria.

Increasing social connections can help tremendously with anxieties and fears.

School districts can reach out for trainings at Info@Tris-AR.org.