By Guest Blogger Brittany J. Todd, NCC, LCMHC, NCIP, CLC
September is National Suicide Awareness Prevention Month, therefore this post is dedicated to increasing knowledge with the hope of initiating a deeper conversation about mental health and how our children are affected. This month has been an emotional month for multiple reasons within our community, and it has become clear our attention needs to shift in the direction of promoting mental health awareness and support. It is never too early to start educating ourselves and taking action to ensure our children’s mental and emotional wellness.
The need for positive mental health begins at a very young age. As a mental health professional, I see firsthand the need for greater mental health awareness, open conversation and overall attention and care. This is tricky because mental health is too often a difficult and unacceptable topic. In a perfect world, our children are taught the importance of mental health and the ability to identify and express emotions without fear of judgement. In the real world though, this is certainly harder than it sounds. As a therapist and mother of two, I want nothing more than my own kids to be healthy and happy, however, I know that to be healthy far exceeds the parameters of physical health.
As parents and guardians we want our kids to be happy and healthy. We do our best to provide for them everything we absolutely can. We work hard to push our kids to be the best and hold high expectations because we believe in them. We want our kids to make good grades, have great friends, play sports, participate in clubs, get a job, go to a good college, plan for a successful career, and so on.
Of course we do all of this with the best intentions. But do we stop to think about how our kids are feeling and what they want?
There is chatter targeted towards increasing mental health awareness, “removing the stigma,” and promoting suicide awareness – but there is a not enough ACTION, and action is critical in creating positive change. Since Covid began, depression and anxiety have increased dramatically across the board. Isolation, excessive health concerns, financial burdens, academic structure, substance use, difficult relationship dynamics, increased social media usage, and overall higher levels of stress have contributed to a decline in mental health.
Mental health matters now more than ever for all of us, especially our young ones. Our youth are struggling more than we know, looks are deceiving. For the health and safety of our children and adolescents, regular “check ins,” psychoeducation, and dedicated conversations regarding mental health are necessary.
Recognizing the signs of mental health struggles and challenges is not easy at all. We can Google signs and symptoms to find the standard signs of warning; however, many signs of mental health problems are invisible, and often made to be so purposely by the person struggling. The happiest, most popular kid in school, the one that seems to dance and glide through the hallways, has tons of friends and thousands of followers on snapchat, excels academically, or is the all-star athlete, may be the kid that is struggling the most behind the scenes.
When working with parents and families, I strive to provide as much psychoeducation as possible. I emphasize the warning signs of declining mental health that are more discrete, the signs that we may not notice easily if close attention and connection is not maintained.
Let’s talk a little about a few warning signs that are not always in the Google highlights.
- Changes in behavior are one of the biggest signs demonstrated by those who are battling their mental health. Of course behavior can look very different from person to person, and such changes may not lead one to think “is my child struggling?” Someone who does not want to get out of bed can be hurting just as much as someone who can’t stop going and doing. The reality is that we can’t walk on eggshells checking on and hovering over our children 24/7; therefore, in order to recognize when something seems off or unsettled, it is important to deeply get to know your child and their behaviors as they grow, change, and experience life.
- Another difficult to identify warning sign includes social media involvement and expression. It is on social media that our children, especially our teens, express their feelings both positively and negatively. It is important to understand the dynamics of social media and to talk to your child about the different platforms, what they use them for and why. Try to approach this conversation without judgment and with a genuine desire to learn about their world. Work to create an open and ongoing conversation regarding social media – remember knowledge is power.
It is important to note that these mentioned warning signs are all too often disguised and excused as stress and pressure, or typical adolescent behavior. Be careful of assumptions and if you have questions or concerns about your child’s behaviors and emotions. Talk to them, ask them – do not wait.
So what do we do if we see our children are struggling?
- First things first, talk to them. Get down on their level and be real with them, humanize yourself. Remember that you don’t have to understand why they feel a certain way or what they are upset about. The important thing is that you showed up and care, that you see them, you’re paying attention and you hear them.
- Solve the problem with your child, not for your child. Come up with a plan together to seek professional help and support. Remind them as a family you are a team and there is always strength in numbers.
- Express your unconditional love for them. One of the things I come across in my practice are parents who inadvertently take their child’s mental health discomfort personally. Work to validate your child’s feelings without blaming yourself or expressing hurt due to their actions and emotions driven by mental health.
- Reach out for professional help to support your child and your family. Realize that even superhero parents can’t do it all. Despite our wishes at times, we cannot be our child’s therapist, pediatrician, dentist, teacher, tutor etc. We can only be us, we can only play one role. Going to counseling does not mean something is wrong with your child (or you!). In fact quite the opposite. Seeking professional help provides your child someone to talk to, someone who can be there in ways that maybe no one can. Counseling and therapy can offer support through adjustments and transitions as our children work to become the healthiest version of themselves. Asking for help is one of the bravest things one can do. Normalize this for your child, normalize mental health.
If you are concerned about your child or loved one’s mental health and/or are seeing warning signs, or even if you simply want to begin to build a support team, reach out to a mental health professional immediately.
Do not hesitate, do not leave anything up to chance. You could save their life.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
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