While exciting, going back to school this year will be different. (Photo: A Precious Child),

Going back to school this year will be different. The cumulative effects of being isolated and removed from a traditional educational environment is having lasting effects for many kids, families and caregivers.

Luckily the topic of mental health is no longer so taboo. One in every four people in America has experienced mental health challenges, including episodic depression, anxiety, suicide ideation or chronic serious mental illness, in their lifetime.

“We all have stress. We all feel overwhelmed, defeated, or at least confused from time to time with our strong emotions,” says Longmont-based Licensed Professional Counselor Chandra Lontz-Smith at Genuine Heart Counseling. “We all get hijacked by an inner critic, a tendency toward perfectionism or general self-absorption, all of which makes completion or cooperation difficult — and all of which are the groundwork of mental health.”

Connecting with kids through community
Just as there’s a sense of community when people feel they are not alone in their struggles, there’s a well-established local support network ready to jump into action to help us all navigate our way back to a healthy school year.

Mental Health Partners (MHP) is one local nonprofit that provides access to expert mental health and substance use care, regardless of ability to pay. For almost 60 years, MHP has served Boulder County through trained therapists, traditional talk therapy, and personalized whole-person care plans to support learning, development and personal growth.

“In addition to therapeutic programs, we focus on community outreach and education to help people realize it’s okay to have a problem and get help with dealing with it,” says Marketing Coordinator Elizabeth Willacker. “We raise awareness about mental illness and suicide, educate the public about how to get care, and provide timely information and support to encourage wellness and self-care.”

One of MHP’s newest programs is Kid Connects in the Neighborhood, which offers resources, screenings, referrals and more for children cared for by family, friends or neighbors.

Dalton Risner at A Precious Child’s 2021 giveSports skills camp. (Photo: A Precious Child).

Helping children reach their full potential
Broomfield’s A Precious Child, which receives referrals from over 550 agency partners, offers what it calls cradle-to-career support. “We help break the cycle of poverty by reducing socioeconomic inequalities, connecting clients with needed resources, services, opportunities and educational support,” says Marketing Director Danica De Jong. “Once approved, we provide wrap-around services and even emotional support to many people who come in lost, anxious and overwhelmed.”

Programs range from Basics 4 Babies, which includes everything from formula to diapers for newborns, infants and toddlers, to the giveSPORTS program, which connects kids in need with new or gently used sports equipment and awards scholarships to help pay for participation fees, uniforms and equipment.

The impacts are visceral. The organization recently worked with a couple who had to cash in their 401K in order to provide for the seven grandchildren currently in their custody. A Precious Child’s Resource Center allowed the caregivers to shop for all of the children free of charge.

“They went to school feeling confident and inline with their peers in their new clothes and new backpacks filled with supplies,” De Jong says. “This relieves a lot of stress and anxiety for a number of families who need to utilize their income to pay for necessary expenses like rent, utilities and insurance.”

One-on-one therapeutic support
For some children who have anxiety around returning to school, a one-on-one approach may be the best approach to easing back into the learning environment.

Lontz-Smith specializes in a child-directed model called Synergetic Play Therapy, which supports kids in their own language: play. She says the process can help children decrease anxiety, withdrawal and aggressive behaviors, as well as increase empathy, confidence and cooperation. She also works in Hand in Hand Parenting, a parenting model that supports connection, relationship, regulation, emotional expression and authenticity.

Lontz-Smith helped a variety of families during a very challenging year filled with COVID vaccines, masks, and mixed messages; personal experiences with illness and loss; and political and racial unrest and violence.

“It makes sense to have feelings of agitation, impatience, fear, anger, anxiety and apprehension or to notice trouble sleeping, trouble eating, or tendencies toward coping strategies like drinking, eating, sleeping or TV,” she says. “Our systems are trying to manage a lot!”

Healthcare education for all
Managing healthcare is another element of getting back to a “new normal” come a new school year. Benefits in Action is a community organization focused on tackling this challenging element of our society. They assist Coloradans in understanding, access and utilization of healthcare.

There are several Benefits in Action programs that families can participate in leading up to this school year, including a mental wellness program called Connectedness. “There is no judgment. We are all in different places with mental health, and it does not determine your worth,” says Ron DeVries, lead benefit navigator at Benefits in Action. “Our Connectedness program focuses on the mental wellness of isolated individuals by calling weekly to connect.”

SNAP application and recertification, as well as a food delivery program are other helpful supports. For some families Benefits in Action has been a primary source of food. Healthcare enrollment is another key area. DeVries says the organization can assist with enrolling in Connect for Health Colorado insurance and for some large families or those with lower income, Child Health Plan+ for the kids while the parents choose a health insurance plan.

As they say, “It takes a village.” And when it comes to helping children, caregivers and families get back to school in wellness the village is here to support anyone in need. Don’t hesitate to reach out to these diverse local organizations to learn how they can assist your family moving forward this fall.

By Julie Kailus for Raised in the Rockies