Anxiety—regarded by counselors as the common cold of mental health—is alive, spreading and bringing with it as much discomfort as the flu among local students, according to updates provided by CHILL mental health professionals in 12 local schools.
Counselors in the CHILL program, which stands for Community Help & Intervention in Life’s Lessons, are based in each of the 12 schools in Winter Park, Maitland and Eatonville and are jointly supported by the schools and grant support from the Winter Park Health Foundation (WPHF). (CHILL is part of the WPHF’s long-supported Coordinated Youth Initiative, a collection of free, school-based health and wellness services, offered in partnership with local schools.)
Under the CHILL program, students and their families receive free, confidential counseling on school campuses. Demand for services remains steady with about 650 students participating in CHILL services for the first half of the current school year.
Students can be referred to CHILL by school staff, parents or themselves. Parental consent is required to enroll a student in the program.
The first half of the school year has been marked by increased parent engagement, according to Aimee Jennings, LMHC, Coordinator of the CHILL program. Parents have been responding to calls from CHILL Counselors and calling on their own because their children have mental health issues they don’t know how to handle.
Among the current trends identified by the CHILL Counselors:
- Counselors are seeing significant levels of anxiety among participants in the CHILL program to the point some students can’t get out of bed and, are having panic attacks.
- There appears to be a correlation between an increase in the frequency of testing and evaluations and higher stress levels among both students and their teachers.
- Counselors also have seen increases in depression, in self-harm behaviors such as cutting, and reports of suicidal ideation among students participating in the CHILL program.
- CHILL program participants have also reported more issues of sexual abuse, sexual coercion, and date rape than in past years.
- Bullying, including cyberbullying, and other social media related issues, continue to increase.
- There has been an increase in kindergarten students socially not ready for school.
- Homelessness seems to be on the rise in the recent month, creating new issues for students.
- And counselors have seen an overall increase in emotional dysregulation, impulse control and a lack of conflict resolution abilities among students.
Crisis incidents needing immediate attention also have been on the rise. For example, Ms. Jennings noted counselors ended up filing 64 reports of suspected abuse or neglect to the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) from August to December 2014—a 34 percent increase over the same period last school year. This is further compounded by last year’s 45 percent increase from the previous (2012-2013) school year.
In addition, she said 11 students thought to be in danger of hurting themselves or others had to be sent for a psychiatric exam as provided under Florida’s Baker Act, a 22 percent increase over the same period last year.
Local students aren’t alone in feelings of stress. A survey by the American Psychological Association last year revealed teen stress rivaled that of adults, especially during the school year impacting academic performance as well as healthy behaviors such as exercise and eating nutritious meals.
CHILL is designed as an early intervention program to identify and address issues, like stress and anxiety, so CHILL counselors teach and reinforce coping skills to help prevent long term and more serious emotional health issues.
“Being a teenager can be challenging. Keeping grades at high levels, being balanced with time commitments, and saying no to various unhealthy behaviors can be stress producing experiences for some students,” said Tim Smith, Winter Park High School Principal. “If our students are struggling with difficult issues, we look to provide help and assistance. …The (CHILL) program has been an important source of assistance and support to many students over the years. Counselors from the program stay busy as they interact with many students and provide critical support.”
Family support is also crucial. Ms. Jennings suggests parents provide their children with the opportunity to talk. It’s just as important for parents to listen and see if the child has ideas for solving whatever is troubling him or her before offering suggestions.
“Kids have so much to say if we just listen to them,” says Ms. Jennings. “Half of dealing with depression and anxiety is feeling alone, and many kids don’t want to worry their parents or don’t think they care. Providing space to communicate is huge.”
And one more tip from Ms. Jennings—it is great for family members to do more together, just for fun.
Click here for more information about CHILL.