Addressing the fears of a new school year

In the wake of the horrific tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, many children and their parents are dealing with additional fears that have arisen in light of returning to school. While some anxiety about starting the new school year is common, beginning school in the wake of such an enormous tragedy has put many children and parents on edge.

Jonathan Ponser, manager of Memorial Behavioral Therapy Services in Springfield, says parents must first deal with their own fears. "You have to come to terms with your own thoughts and feelings about it before you're able to provide support to your child," states Ponser. "If you're conflicted and not feeling safe, your kids will see right through that."

One way of addressing fears is to realize that a mass shooting at a school is actually quite rare. "If it was something happening all the time, we'd be numb to it. The fact that we aren't is a good thing, because it shows it doesn't happen frequently," explains Ponser.

According to statistics provided by Ponser, based off data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 2% of student homicides happen in schools, with the remainder occurring off-site in the community. Mass shootings are 10 times more likely to happen in restaurants, and homicide in general is 200 times more likely to happen in a personal residence. "Schools are the safest place for a person to be in terms of likelihood for homicide," says Ponser.

Another reassurance is that Springfield School District 186 schools and local police are proactive when it comes to dealing with potential security threats.

"I feel like anything that has been even a rumbling of a threat around here, authorities have been quick [to act]," states Ponser. "I feel that is encouraging that they've been clearly monitoring things pretty closely in this area."

After dealing with their own fears, then it's time for parents to check in with their children, listening to what they have to say and addressing fears as they arise. Ponser warns against answering unasked questions because "there might be things that we're thinking they are worried about, but it might not be those things. If we are bringing up things that they haven't even thought about, now they have even more anxiety."

Answering in an age-appropriate manner is important. Younger children don't necessarily need to have a lot of details. Older children may need to be reminded that a plan is in place should any potential dangers like fires, tornadoes or shootings happen at school. Drills for these events have best practices put into place to keep everyone safe.

Fifteen schools in District 186 house The Children's MOSAIC Project, which provides master's-level therapists who work closely with school social workers and principals to identify students who are struggling with mental health concerns. Students who are referred to MOSAIC are supported not only with mental health services, but additional concerns are addressed such as housing, medical and other social equity issues. Programs like MOSAIC can nip potential problems in the bud, plus also provide support for children who are dealing with excessive fears.

To ease our fears about life in general, Ponser suggests we "focus on things that we do have in our control. That can decrease anxiety and help us feel more at ease with the world in general."

For children who may seem stressed or worried, Ponser advises encouraging them "to engage in other activities to help them feel more empowered, more in control, more calm. If there's a hobby or something they are really interested in, maybe this is a good time to do those things, especially if they are feeling very worried. In times when I'm doing something I'm good at, I feel good about myself. I have control over it, and everything in my life feels more secure."

Many parents feel moved to become involved in social or political movements, such as gun regulation or gun abolition movements. This can make parents feel like they are doing something, which can be another effective way of dealing with anxiety.

If you feel anxiety is greatly affecting your daily living, or affecting your child, speak to your primary care physician. If you feel a mental health crisis is imminent, call 988 for immediate assistance. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline offers 24/7 call, text and chat access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing a mental health crisis or any other kind of emotional distress.

The Living Room at Memorial Behavioral Health, 710 N. Eighth, can help adults age 18 and over who are experiencing a mental health crisis. Walk-ins are welcome, Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.

Carey Smith of Springfield is thankful to have a wonderful therapist through Memorial Behavioral Health.

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