North Shore parents get schooled on mental health

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Parents played students at an event on Monday in which they were invited to attend “classes” offering tips to help children struggling with mental health and resources to help build their self-esteem.

“Parent University” was hosted by the North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse and North Shore Middle School in the school’s library. Nearly 30 parents attended.

“North Shore CASA is focused on supporting wellness activities to help stem the tide of our substance-use crisis,” said the organization’s president, Alison Camardella. “Mental health [symptoms] are oftentimes the exact same symptoms of substance abuse, and it is so important for these kids to learn how to manage their own stress and anxiety so that they don’t turn to substances to combat those stresses.”

The coalition has worked with community partners since 2017 to organize and host informational events focusing on substance abuse and prevention. Middle School Principal Robert Dennis said that the school’s student support team was interested in reaching a large segment of the community to address aspects of mental health.

“The topics were identified by our student support team as areas that would be beneficial for parents to hear about,” Dennis said. The “classes” focused on depression, vaping, mindfulness and stress, and how each correlates to substance abuse. School psychologists, counselors and a representative of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence acted as “teachers,” sharing warning signs, coping mechanisms and prevention strategies that the parents could use to help their children address the stressors in their lives.

Depression

Sixth-grade psychologist Bill Kitay spoke about depression, and how parents could identify the warning signs and help a child in need. “Some of the instability you see is normal, but it reaches a peak as you move from middle school to high school,” Kitay said. He added that 80 percent of adolescents never receive help for their depression.

Kitay explained the internal and external factors linked to “tween” and teen depression. Hormonal and chemical imbalances in the body and brain are internal factors, and external factors, such as unrealistic academic, social or family expectations, he said, could lead to feelings of inadequacy. Withdrawal from communication and poor school performance should also be considered red flags, Kitay said.

For those parents worried that their child may be suffering from depression, he recommended encouraging social connections, making physical health a priority, knowing when to seek help and supporting an adolescent through treatment.

Vaping

Adam Birkenstock, the clinical director at LICAAD, detailed the physical and mental health risks associated with vaping. It has become wildly popular among teenagers who believe it’s harmless, but, Birkenstock said, “There’s a wealth of distracting information. What we’re seeing is fairly innocuous, but it can lead to an escalation of [substance] use.”

He emphasized peer pressure, saying that young people will do things that seem normal and healthy if their friends are doing them, too. Then he asked the parents why vaping might seem beneficial to some children. One answered that it could help them relax; another said it could make them appear cool.

In his experience as a social worker, Birkenstock said, he has counseled adolescents who were tight-lipped when it came to talking to their parents about substance use, and that broaching the subject at home in a less accusatory way would guide productive conversations.

“Coming from a place of empathy is really important,” he said. “If kids feel like they’re doing something wrong, they can build up a sense of denial, which can lead into abuse and dependence.”

Mindfulness

Middle school counselors Aimee Canzoniero and Flavia Finning told parents about the schools’ “Mind Up” curriculum, which teaches students self-regulation and coping techniques to deal with stress and anxiety. They learn about different functions of the brain, which helps them retain those techniques, and provides a better sense of readiness for high school, college and a career.

Some students are so stressed, Canzoniero said, that “I’ve seen kids doing their homework during recess rather than going out and playing. ‘Mind Up’ gives kids the tools to manage the bumps in the road, and allows them to gain control over their thoughts, behaviors and emotions.”

During “Mind Up” training, Finning explained, students act out scenarios they can relate to, and learn to navigate those scenarios using mindfulness, a meditative practice that “centers” users and engages them in the present moment. “We look at mindfulness as pressing the pause button on life,” Canzoniero said.

By employing this and other grounding strategies, like deep-breathing exercises and “sensory glitter jars,” they said, students can better manage their surroundings and think through stressful situations.

Stress and anxiety

Assistant Principal Brendan Nelson and John Jackson, an eighth-grade counselor, spoke to parents about stress. In the age of social media, Nelson said, “Our kids never get a break from the stress in their lives.”

The two compared acute and chronic stress, and identified their physical symptoms. Nelson recommended that parents work with their children to find ways to overcome stress. “By offering them suggestions and having them choose what works best for them gives [students] ownership over their solutions,” he said. “The best thing we can do as parents is listen. The worst thing we can do is minimize their feelings.”