In recognition of Teen Mental Health Month and Social Worker Appreciation Month, we asked a local school social worker about the top issues impacting teen mental wellness today.
Bambi Berger, School Counselor at Akron Early College High School/Akron Public Schools has been in education for 18 years and a school counselor for 12 of those years. She has always been employed by APS; starting as an intervention specialist and then moving into counseling. Ms. Berger said, “I think social media has a large impact on teen mental health. Self-image and lack of social skills are the top two things I recognize with the teens over the past few years. COVID also had a large impact on mental health as well.” She said teens (as well as adults) had to be so reliant on technology that being confined in our homes and having the lack of face-to-face contact has truly affected many people negatively. Her school district was virtual for an entire year and then was optional at the end of 2021 to return. More of those students remained virtual than in person and Berger said they are definitely seeing the effects now that they are back in person this school year.
“I am also seeing more depression and anxiety issues in our teens than ever before. Teens are less likely to have coping mechanisms to help overcome those feelings and I am finding myself teaching students more and more how to recognize depression within themselves as well as in others,” she said. “Anxiety is also a major challenge with students having little to know resilience when it comes to an issue they don’t know how to handle. I am helping many students with test anxiety as well as anxiety with what is happening in the world outside of their homes.”
So what can parents do to recognize and deal with these issues? Berger said parents need to educate themselves on the signs of depression and anxiety and suicidal ideations more than ever. “I subscribe to magazines and tend to read as much as I can not only as a school counselor but also as a mother to a 19, 17, and 9-year-old! I think educating yourself as a parent but also educating your child and having open communication is key to a healthy relationship,” she said. “If children feel supported and safe to speak on what is happening inside their minds, they will tend to reach out earlier than later for help.”
And how do school social workers and counselors help support the kids in their schools? Berger said unfortunately, they are limited in their power to mitigate because they are not licensed to diagnose. They can only refer to outside agencies to handle that. However, school social workers and counselors are often the first line of defense because of how much time they spend with the kids. And, because they are “neutral” kids can often feel more safe talking to them first before a friend or family member. School social workers and counselors are trained to observe and identify the signs and are there to lend communication and support to kids who are struggling. They are an invaluable part of the school staff and can be a conduit of support and communication between teens and parents.