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Back-to-School Stress Can Coincide with the Onset of Mental Illness in Some Adolescents


Going back to school after the summer break, especially when
transitioning from elementary school to middle school, from middle
school to high school or from high school to college, can be an
especially stressful time for many adolescents. In some cases, the
change can coincide with the first onset of depression or other serious
mental health issues.

"Changing grade levels or transitioning to another school can be very
stressful for adolescents. They're having to deal with new environments,
new teachers, new classmates," said David Chu, M.D., a psychiatrist and
medical director of the inpatient psychiatric program at Southern
California Hospital at Culver City. "For those with underlying mental
health issues, this can be when their first bout of depression occurs."

The stress of transitioning from high school to college can also be a
risk factor for students in late adolescence, according to Dr. Chu, who
specializes in adolescent behavioral health care. "Most of the symptoms
of mental illness occur in the late teens or early 20s," he said. "Any
new change in environment at that age can be difficult. This is often
when we see the first symptoms of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or
other mental health conditions."

For parents, it's important to recognize any symptoms and seek
professional help quickly. "The first episode of any mental illness is
usually the hardest, because the patient and the parents haven't dealt
with it before," Dr. Chu said. "With any signs of mental illness, the
key is get treatment as early as possible. For example, some studies
have shown that early treatment can delay or possibly even prevent
full-blown onset of schizophrenia in adolescents."

To help their child who may be having difficulty with back-to-school
stress and its effect on mental health, parents should:

  • Look for any changes in daily habits, such as eating and sleeping. A
    child who used to sleep eight or nine hours a night and now is only
    getting four or five hours may be experiencing depression.
  • Watch for signs of a child becoming sad or withdrawn, especially one
    who previously was very engaged with his or her friends.
  • Talk to a school counselor if you see anything amiss and check to see
    if anything is happening in school, such as bullying, that might be
    causing a change in the child's behavior.
  • Seek professional help as soon as possible.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, one in five
children ages 13 to 18 have or will have a serious mental illness. Fifty
percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75
percent by age 24.

About Southern California Hospital at Culver City

Opened as an eight-bed clinic in 1925, Southern California Hospital at
Culver City (SCH-CC) has dedicated itself to providing quality care to
the culturally diverse populations of the Culver City and West Los
Angeles communities. SCH-CC is a general acute care hospital that
utilizes many of the latest medical treatments and technologies. The
hospital offers a wide range of inpatient and outpatient acute care
services, including an orthopedic and spine center, cardiovascular
services, metabolic and bariatric surgery, acute rehabilitation,
sub-acute care, psychiatric care and chemical dependency programs.
Additionally, SCH-CC operates a 24-hour emergency services center, which
serves as a paramedic receiving station and is staffed by
board-certified emergency physicians and nurse specialists.

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