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Professionals encourage students to speak up, seek help for mental health issues during South Brunswick High School’s virtual Mental Health Wellness Fair

SOUTH BRUNSWICK – Adolescents are trying to cope with puberty, their teenage years, applying to college and now coping with stress and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Brunswick High School holds a mental health fair every year based on the theme “Stop the Stigma, Stamp out the Stress.”

This year’s event took a different turn, being held virtually on April 24 with live presenters, pre-recorded videos, activities, student presentations, music therapy, photo links and information “tables” online.

“As a school community, we feel mental health is a vital component to the success of our students,” said Aaron Millman, one of the student assistance counselors at the high school. “We believe it’s a strength to ask for help.”

Dr. Ketan Trivedi spoke live from the Emergency Room at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center in Mansfield, Texas.

Trivedi said although he has managed ebola, the flu, hepatitis and AIDS, “This disease (COVID-19) has been a real, real challenge for us for a couple reasons.

“One is that it’s very, very communicable and so it easily goes from one person to another person, so that’s one challenge, how to contain it and how to prevent the spread.

“The other challenge is that somebody can have this virus and be asymptomatic, meaning they can be walking around without any symptoms and still be spreading the virus and still be sharing the virus … so that’s a challenge, identifying those who have the virus who do not yet have the symptoms who are able to spread the virus. …

“The other challenge with this virus is (medical providers) become carriers as well if we are not careful and then pass it on to our families at home.

“The other issue with this virus is we don’t have great therapies yet. This is a new virus, that’s why it’s called a novel virus. … Some [therapies] show mild promises here and there, but unfortunately when they start doing big trials they really are not seeing very successful stories. … We’re not saying these therapies don’t work yet, but I think we need more data.

“At the same time, because it’s a new virus, we don’t have any vaccines for it. … As you can imagine, that’s a long, long process to one, identify how this virus actually works, how it attacks the patient, the mechanism it uses to get inside the cell and how we harness this knowledge to develop a vaccine to stop the virus … and safety is another issue [in terms of human trials].”

Trivedi also said that right now the available antibody tests are not reliable because their accuracy is unknown.

In Texas, Trivedi said, the number of cases is trending downward and the state is slowly lifting its stay-at-home order.

He said he expects there to be a small spike in the number of cases as people venture out, but he said his hospital is running at half capacity so if there is a surge there is equipment on hand and ventilators are available.

“I think it remains to be seen what pans out for us and what pans out for the country,” he said.

Medically speaking, Trivedi said, staying at home is great, because people are walking around with the virus without knowing they have it. By the time the person gets to the hospital, they have already spread it around.

But, he continued, depression can result due to isolation, not having a routine, being worried about economic impacts and being concerned about health. He said going outside for fresh air while social distancing and wearing a mask are acceptable.

Donna Moreen, the school nurse at South Brunswick High School, said exercising releases endorphins, which is another benefit of going outside.

Trivedi also said people are being bombarded with news 24 hours a day, so it is “understandable people become anxious because you see the statistics of how many people are getting it, how many people are dying, so anxiety levels start going up.”

Therefore, another challenge, according to Trivedi, is the collateral damage to patients, families and healthcare workers, “which is not so easy to spot.”

Trivedi said whereas a medical problem like diabetes or high blood pressure can be treated with medication, mental health is more challenging because it becomes part of an individual’s personality. Early identification is key, he said. And, he added, there is a stigma, especially in minority communities.

Moreen said students who have mental health concerns generally present symptoms of frequent headaches or stomach aches.

Other signs parents should look for, Trivedi said, are palpitations, irregular heartbeat, nausea, sweaty palms, diarrhea, disinterest and inactivity.

“The hard part is that mental health, that’s become the real challenge because sometimes it’s really hard to spot, sometimes the symptoms are subconscious or subliminal … or some people live by themselves so they don’t have people next to them to share with,” Trivedi said. “Encourage people to seek help when it’s needed. The earlier you find it, the easier it is to treat.”

Trivedi, a father of three teenagers, also encouraged students to find a balance. He said schoolwork, homework and activities often leave students with no downtime.

“I think the challenge becomes how to push kids effectively enough that they are encouraged to do their best, but don’t push them too hard where they get overwhelmed,” he said.

For students who are feeling overwhelmed, speaking with a trusted adult, school counselor or psychologist can prove to be beneficial.

Yuko Inzana, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Princeton, she said she consults many students from South Brunswick High School.

“It is very difficult not to feel anxious and worried if you are a high school student today. You are dealing with a lot of academic and societal pressure on top of your social activities. With the current pandemic, it’s almost impossible not to be anxious. First of all, your feelings are valid and true,” she said.

Inzana explained that anxiety is excessive worry. If anxiety subsides after a specific situation, it is not of concern. But if anxiety becomes obsessive – for example, worrying about a test vs. constantly stressing over grades – it could be troublesome.

She said 40% of adults experience mental health problems in their lifetime, but the average age at onset is 14, usually associated with puberty.

She said young children experience feelings they cannot put into words, and “don’t feel well,” but older children understand what they are experiencing.

In addition, Inzana said there are fewer diagnoses among minorities, but studies indicate that is due to stigma and people not seeking help.

“Counseling is not just talking,” she said of some parents’ trepidation about seeking the advice of a professional. She cited proven cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that are effective tools in managing problems. She added if a problem is not treated it could lead to more severe symptoms and thus more severe treatment.

“Early treatment prevents students from potential tragedy” such as an eating disorder, addiction or even suicide, she said.

Inzana said she has been dealing with her own anxiety and worry related to COVID-19, as she has family members and friends in Japan. She said being far apart from relatives is difficult and frustrating, and it’s normal to feel helpless.

She suggested connecting virtually as much as possible.

“Focus on what you can control while you accept what you can’t control. Sometimes we have to pray and wait and see, unfortunately,” she said.

On a lighter note, Dr. Matt Bellace, a neuropsychologist, author and comedian, expressed the importance of finding humor during times of tragedy.

He mentioned how he recently spoke to some friends who finally revealed the perpetrator of a prank from many years ago – and how the group just laughed and laughed about it.

“Humor, to me, is a mood booster. You laugh, you feel good,” he said. “You’re not thinking about anything else, you’re thinking about how funny that was.”

Bellace said he made a joke that society can’t wait for a vaccine just so half the country can refuse to take it.

“We need humor, especially in dark times,” he said.

Taking a more serious approach, Bellace spoke about his wife who is a clinical psychologist, and how he recognizes that students do struggle. He said this could be because they have not built the skills they need in high school.

“I just see so many young people who, if they had better coping skills and they learned them when they were younger, wouldn’t need to pursue these more intense interventions when they get to these high pressure situations, and it’s really hard to watch,” he said.

Bellace said it is important to always find the positives.

“We have been dealing with a crisis. If there’s ever a time to be anxious and stressed, it’s here, this is it. But I think the silver lining reveals itself over time, so initially you might be very upset over things being canceled or things you don’t have, but the hope is over time you will start to realize the things you do have,” he said.

Bellace said he has been taking time during the coronavirus crisis to process his own life. He said he hit the pause button and is reassessing what, and who, really matters.

“The ones who you truly want to lean upon step up and they are offering you their time, their attention, maybe money,” he said.

The presenters also addressed the crucial role parents play in managing their child’s mental health care.

“If your son or daughter communicates to you they need assistance, we gotta help them,” Millman said.

Inzana said the modern high school environment is much different than 15 years ago when today’s adults were in school. Thus, more modern techniques are beneficial. And, parents should not judge their children.

“Having mental health problems is not a weakness. At my office I see many thoughtful, academically strong students who suffer from depression and anxiety,” she said.

She encouraged children to speak with their parents openly and honestly. If that is not an option, speak to a school counselor.

“A student needs a good ally to advocate for them,” she said.

Inzana encouraged parents to express their own feelings to their children, albeit in an appropriate manner. She said adults feel irritated and stressed by the current situation and should explain that they don’t intend to be angry or tough with their children.

“It will help kids to be more emotionally grounded,” she said.

She reminded parents that mental health issues are strictly confidential, so students who might be worried about colleges finding out about their condition do not need to worry about that.

“They key is to seek out help soon,” she said. “Students know South Brunswick High School is a safe place for them.”

To access the mental health fair resources and videos, visit https://sites.google.com/view/sbhsmentalhealthwellnessfair 

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com.

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