One in every five American teenagers and young adults lives with a behavioral health condition. How can you help your child?
Discussing mental health with children might seem intimidating — teenagers may be reluctant to talk about what’s bothering them and finding the right words can be difficult. However, it’s something families owe to themselves to focus on. The incidence of behavioral health concerns among teenagers is on the rise, and parents have the power to help.
“We’ve seen a huge spike in the rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers,” said Eric Gross, LPCC, director of clinical services at Our Lady of Peace, part of KentuckyOne Health. “Even more alarming is that self-injury is also on the rise. There’s a clear need for more open conversation about these topics so we can better understand the problem and get teens the help they need.”
Know the Signs
Many factors contribute to the increase in teens dealing with mental health issues, including bullying and self-esteem problems. The internet also plays a major role, as constant use of social media decreases face-to-face interaction and increases isolation.
Anxiety and depression are two of the most common behavioral health concerns in teens.
Symptoms of depression include:
- Frequent irritability or tiredness
- Drop in school performance or time spent with friends
- Constant sadness
- Frequent trips to the school nurse’s office
- Changes in sleep or eating routines
Symptoms of anxiety include:
- Restlessness and difficulty falling asleep
- Hot flashes
- Nausea or dizziness
- Excessive worrying or immediately jumping to the worst possible conclusion about situations
“Parents should watch for things like changes in academic performance, withdrawing from family or peer groups, and isolation,” said Heather Goodman, manager of assessment and referral services at Our Lady of Peace in Lexington, part of KentuckyOne Health. “As a parent, you know your child better than anyone. If you see an overall change in personality, that’s a legitimate concern.”
Seek Help and Find Hope
One of the first — and best — things that a parent can do to help is create an environment where their child feels like they can safely open up about issues they’re facing.
It’s normal for everyone to experience some shifts in mood, especially if something traumatic occurs, such as the loss of an elderly relative. But if a situation doesn’t seem like it’s improving and is affecting your teen’s overall functioning, it may be time to seek professional help. This could be through a mental health referral from a pediatrician or scheduling an appointment with the school counselor.
“Encourage children to open up and tell them that both you and the professional are there to help them,” Goodman said. “Therapy is a safe, judgment-free place for them to talk about their concerns.”
Being there for children involves giving them opportunities to talk and listen. Encourage young people to do both. Together with their physician and therapist, you can find a solution.
One of the biggest factors contributing to teens’ isolation today is the immense popularity of social media, notes Gross.
“Teens socialize through social media, and that’s not really what they need,” Gross said. “They’re missing out on that face-to-face connection.”
Gross advocates for taking regular social media breaks. Encourage teens to spend time with friends in person, ideally out in the fresh air, as a way to boost their mental wellbeing.
Be proactive. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people ages 15–24. Fortunately, in most cases, there are warning signs parents can watch for to help prevent these tragedies. They include:
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping
- Erratic behavior
- Isolation from social relationships, poor performance at school and withdrawing from extracurricular activities
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Anxiety, unexplained fatigue, and excessive sadness or irritability
“Trust your instincts,” said Gross. “Sometimes, if a child doesn’t want to talk, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to be heard.”
If you are concerned, talk with your child’s pediatrician about a mental health referral. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide are also good resources for more information. Noticing symptoms and getting help early are great ways to find a positive, and even lifesaving, solution.
Are you concerned your child may be living with anxiety or depression? Learn more about available behavioral health services or call the 24-hour HelpLine at 502.451.3333.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 Summer edition of One Health magazine. Sign up for your free digital subscription.