Are you concerned about your teen’s mental health? If you are, you are not alone. The CDC found that mental health in high school students is getting worse. More than 1 in 3 students couldn’t participate in regular activities due to feelings of sadness or hopelessness. This was an increase of 40% compared to a 2009 survey. Mental health challenges can negatively impact school performance and physical health.
To address this growing public health issue, the U.S. Surgeon General recently released “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” an advisory for people and institutions that shape the day-to-day lives of young people. A young person’s mental health is impacted not only by family members and caregivers but by educators, healthcare providers, media organizations, technology companies, communities, employers, government institutions and others. Everyone must do their part to support the mental health of young people.
The Advisory explains that there isn’t a magic solution that can fix this problem overnight. It will take an “all-of-society effort, including policy, institutional, and individual
changes in how we view and prioritize mental health.”
Here are some recommendations for parents and caregivers adapted from the Advisory:
Model self-care. Model good physical and mental self-care. Encourage family members to follow your lead. Self-care begins with the basics. Eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep and make time for daily physical exercise. Take breaks when needed. Cope with stress in positive ways and talk about it. Get help if you need it. Stay connected with family and friends. Establish screen-free times for the entire family.
Invest time in a strong parent-child relationship. Make the relationship with your child a priority. Spend time in activities you both enjoy. Give praise for accomplishments both large and small.
Encourage your child to talk about what is on his mind and how he is feeling. Be a good listener. Listen more than you talk. Show love and acceptance. Work to keep communication open and flowing.
Connect children with other adults who can serve as mentors. Strong, safe, stable relationships with supportive adults help children develop resilience. Teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, clergy and community leaders often take a mentor role.
Encourage healthy social relationships with peers. Provide opportunities for your child to build social relationships with other children. Invite neighborhood families to an activity. Schedule play dates for younger children. Explore extracurricular activities that involve other young people, such as afterschool programs, sports or clubs. Talk to your child about how to handle peer pressure and bullying. Explain how to set boundaries and the importance of letting others know what you need.
Be strategic when you must talk about stressful topics. The American Psychological Association suggests that when you need to talk about dangers, violence or tragedies, you think about what you want to say beforehand. Find a quiet time and place so that you can have a conversation without interruptions. Start off by asking your child what she knows or has heard about the topic. Then listen carefully. Tell the truth. Talk about feelings. End by reassuring your child that you love her and will do everything you can to keep her safe.
Talk to children about unhealthy behaviors. Have conversations early about the risks of alcohol and drug use. Young people who have mental health challenges often engage in unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope. Discuss healthy ways to manage stress and model them yourself. Schedule regular checkups with your child’s healthcare provider. Your child’s doctor can suggest actions to prevent disease as well as identify any potential health problems that need to be addressed. A provider that knows your child can be a valuable resource if he develops mental health distress.
Look for warning signs of distress and get help when needed. Signs of mental distress vary from person to person. Some signs are excessive worry, anger, irritability, negative thoughts and trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Watch for changes in appearance, school performance or eating patterns. If you think your child is in distress, offer your support and get help. See sidebar “Where To Find Help for Your Child.”
Protect your child from access to means of self-harm. Suicide rates among young people in the United States increased by 57% between 2007 and 2018. Take a few minutes to inspect your home. Dispose of expired medicines. Keep current medicines in a locked cabinet. If you have firearms in your home, make sure they are stored safely – unloaded and locked up. If your child is at increased risk of self-harm, talk to your mental health professional about additional steps to take. Talking openly with your child about any suicidal thoughts will not plant that seed in his mind. Instead, it allows you to get him the help he needs.
Be a mental health advocate in your community. Talk openly about the importance of mental health to your friends, family and neighbors. Support mental health awareness programs in schools and local organizations. See the Advisory for more ways to help.
Where to find help for your child
Start the process of getting help sooner rather than later. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider or school counselor. Your insurance company can refer you to mental health professionals in your area. Call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This free service offers information and referrals to local mental health treatment services, support groups and community organizations.
Read “Protecting Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory 2021,” available online at bit.ly/3AdGEhu
Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer based in Austin.