Lessons for us all as school days return

"The best conversations often happen in the car when your teenager is sitting beside you."

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson


Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson

Lessons for all us all as school days return

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson, Offaly-based clinical psychologists

It's that time of year again.

Most mental health professionals would agree that this time of year often sees a spike in referrals to our services.  The days become shorter as autumn sets in and children and adolescents find themselves returning to school after a long break. Adding a global pandemic and management of same into the mix means that this September more than any other, will bring unique challenges for everyone. This week’s article will examine the psychological challenges that many of us face over the coming weeks.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

At this time of year it is normal to feel tired, to experience a dip in energy levels, a desire to shut the hall door and hibernate at home on the duller, darker evenings.  

However, there is a form of clinical depression that has a seasonal pattern, called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and it most often strikes in the autumn around September/October.  It is more than the sluggishness described above; symptoms overlap with those of major depressive disorder and include feelings of worthlessness, sadness, guilt, poor attention and decision-making, a loss of interest in formerly enjoyed activities, changes in sleep and appetite and in some cases thoughts of suicide.  Sufferers report needing to sleep more but still feeling tired and being hungrier especially for carbohydrates.   More women than men and more younger than older adults are affected by SAD.  As you would expect, SAD is linked to reduced sunlight.   Reduced sunlight means that we produce more melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland that responds to darkness by making us feel sleepy.  Because we are not outside as much in winter months, reduced exposure to sunlight means that we produce less vitamin D which can impact serotonin levels (sometimes called the happy chemical).  Reduced sunlight is also thought to affect our circadian rhythm (the sleep/wake cycle).

We have discussed the treatment of SAD and clinical depression in more detail in previous columns.  In brief, psychological approaches such as CBT and mindfulness, stress management incorporating healthy lifestyle, diet, exercise and sleep advice.  Getting active outside, even on a dull day will help boost vitamin and serotonin levels.

Returning to school

Starting school for the first time, moving to secondary school or just returning after the summer holidays always requires a period of adjustment to change.  This year in particular, our one million returning students to approximately 4,000 schools will have been off school since March 12, close on six months.  Change (especially in this case) is often a good thing, however it does often involve stress.  Many parents as well as students are finding themselves anxious about how the new school year will look. 

So how best can we deal with this stress? Preparation is key.  With younger children, don’t be afraid to talk to them about school in advance.  Primary schoolers will not have to socially distance so they will be able to both see and play with their friends.  That won’t change significantly.  They are probably used to sitting at tables anyhow and "pods” are just small groupings within their class “bubble”.  Reassure them that it is normal to feel anxiety and that there will be many safety strategies in place to keep them safe from the virus.  Tell them that they too can do their bit, by washing their hands regularly and carefully and using appropriate cough and sneeze etiquette.  Be calm yourself, as parents are often the role models (for younger children at least!) and will take their cue from you.  For older children in the secondary school system there will also be many changes to adjust to.  Some will be required by their school to wear face masks in the classroom in addition to on public transport.  They will be urged to socially distance from their peers as well as teachers and of course this is a big ask.  Lunch breaks may look different, and have to be staggered.  Social connection with peers is a hugely important part of adolescent development and was a part of school-life that we have all taken for granted.  Again, talk to your teens; pick a time when everyone is calm.  The best conversations often happen in the car when your teenager is sitting beside you.  Explain that the school staff are faced with very specific new challenges and that patience and flexibility will be required on their part too.

We often talk about being mindful in this column.  The practice of mindfulness incorporates adopting certain attitudes in our day to day life.  For example, taking things one day at a time, accepting what you cannot change, being patient with yourself and others, being curious and open to new situations and challenges rather than judgemental.  If we can try to remember these mindful attitudes and apply them to the challenges in the coming weeks - whether it be the changing of the seasons and what that might entail or getting children (and ourselves) ready to return to school – we are much better able to pause, pull back from worry and calmly carry on.

Julie O'Flaherty and Imelda Ferguson are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They can be contacted through the Psychological of Ireland www.psychologicalsociety.ie (Find a Psychologist section), or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.