For Pitones, these numbers haunt her world.
“There’s at least one or two people in a friend group who … they have some kind of depression or anxiety or at least a suicidal plan,” Pitones said.
She has been struggling with some mental challenges herself, which began when she was struggling with physical health. She struggled with chronic back pain at a young age, with a family history of arthritis that coincided with a growth spurt.
“So I had to go to Children’s Hospital to get some… physical therapy. And I also had a therapist there to talk to. So it’s just, “Why is your mental health declining?” Because I can’t. I can’t do my normal sport. I can’t play volleyball or soccer anymore because everything hurts,” Pitones told her therapist.
She said through working with her therapist, Pitones realized how to shift that mindset from “I can’t” to being less restrictive and celebrating what else she can do.
“I feel more energized to actually go outside and try something, even though I know it’s going to hurt, but it’s going to make me better,” Pitones said.
Outside of her personal journey, this school year she is working on a project to help her classmates. Pitones is on the youth action council with the Department of Mental Health at Children’s Hospital Colorado. This panel is made up of nearly 20 Denver-area teenagers interested in raising awareness and destigmatizing mental health issues.
Pitones got involved last year and helped develop plans to build a “wellness room” at her school.
“It’s like a decompression room where students can go in and … just relax and take a break,” Pitones said, “because the school day is pretty long.”
The wellness room is built in a room in the school library and includes items such as bean bags and soundproof headphones. The hope is that it becomes a place to take a break and keep students from completely breaking down.
“As best you can, try to get through the day without thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m so overwhelmed. I don’t think I’ll get through this day because I’m going to have something of a nervous breakdown,'” Pitones explained.
This spa room won’t be operational until the end of October or November because they couldn’t work on it this summer. However, Pitones is pleased that the students are using it and has heard that they are eagerly awaiting it to be opened.
“The point is that you can decompress and come back to class with a better attitude and not just drop out of the entire class and get a failing grade for the day in that class,” she said.
As the school year begins, especially this year, children have to deal with increasing stress in other ways.
“We are seeing ever-increasing mental health concerns at this point in the school year and that is because going back to school is inherently stressful for everyone. There will be more academic pressure. You’re close to your peer group, which can be good or bad depending on the situation,” Hawks explained.
The other hurdle students face this year is rising expectations of “returning to normal” when so much growth and development has been missed. Aside from academic setbacks, especially based on age, students missed socialization and the structure of personal learning.
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“If you think about the young kids in second, third grade school, their first few years in elementary school were completely different than anything we’ve ever experienced. So they’re almost going back to school for the first time,” Hawks said.
While it’s not always possible to stop stressors, Hawks emphasized that teens and parents can do actionable things to really make a difference and even save a life.
One of the most important things for teens to remember as they head back to school is to get back to basics. It’s amazing what a difference all the basic health and hygiene measures can make on our mental health,” Hawks said. “The most important thing adults can do to support their children is to check in with them regularly and spend quality time together.”
In her work, Hawks said she often works with parents and their children to improve mental health and develop healthy coping skills. She said it’s common for parents to feel guilty about their child’s depression, anxiety or mental illness. She encourages parents to focus not on the blame but on how they can help move forward.
“The really great thing about young people is that they are profoundly positively influenced by the adults in their lives,” Hawks said. “Pay attention to your child and ask them, ‘Hey, how are you?’ And actually listen to what they say and then come up with a plan. If your child is struggling, give them the support they need.”
For Pitones, she wants to tell kids to take care of themselves and each other and know that help is out there. She shared a story about how a friend showed signs of worrisome behavior – dropping out of class, not eating, hanging out with “the bad crowd,” as she put it. Pitones and her friends spoke to this girl and found out that she was planning to harm herself. So they made the difficult decision to tell a teacher.
“[They] let her move into the school counselor’s office, and it was a scary moment because it was like, ‘Is she going to be mad at us for getting her this help?'” Pitones explained. “No, she was very relieved that we did it.”
Pitones said this friend was able to find a therapist and spoke to her recently. She is doing well and has happily welcomed a new puppy to her family.
The past few years have taught Pitones a lot about mental health, but most importantly the power to speak out about the struggles and help break the stigma of asking for help.
“At least talking about it or making it known… that you’re there for them, that’s a very big help,” Pitones said. “[They’re] don’t be so scared to come forward.”