May is National Mental Health Month. This month is set aside to help raise awareness regarding mental health concerns. As we approach the halfway mark of 2021, the world is continuing its efforts to recover from the enormously stressful, bleak, and traumatizing impacts of 2020. People are coping with the continued threat of COVID-19 and the increased stress levels that the pandemic has caused.
At APYD, our focus and mission are centralized around youth empowerment and equipping young people to become leaders and changemakers. To be effective, examining strengths and areas where young people need extra support is essential. Currently, 1 in 6 young people in the U.S. ages 9-17 have a diagnosed mental illness. A recent survey found that nearly half of parents (47%) reported new or worsening mental health symptoms in their teens since the start of the pandemic. With this in mind, it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness that the youth in your life may be demonstrating. Mental health resources for you and teens can be found here.
Once you identify symptoms, it is important to know how to react. Below is a list of positive approaches and things to avoid to support young people experiencing mental health symptoms.
Good communication involves talking AND listening. Providing a safe space for youth to be able to discuss their feelings and stressors is an essential part of being an effective support person.
For individuals struggling with their mental health, unexpected changes can be challenging to manage. If plans have changed, expecting a young person to just “go with it” isn’t always realistic. If there is an event or appointment they aren’t looking forward to, discuss it with them beforehand. If it’s time for them to turn off their video game system to get ready for bed, give them a ten-minute warning. While the event or action may not be optional, allowing your youth time to accept that will help them and potentially avoid an argument.
Do Validate and Reassure
The teen in your life needs to know that you love them, that you care, and that those things will never change. The good things about your teen need to be stated, even if you don’t feel like they are receiving it. It may take time and repetition, but it makes a difference. Their feelings must be validated, even if you disagree with them. Expressing empathy and support will help your youth feel less alone.
Do Find Balance
Giving space and reassurance are both critical. Finding a balance between the two takes time, but make sure to prioritize and allow room for both.
Do Be Patient
Mental illness is not a logical disease. There will be times when your teen may be coping in a different way or less effective way than you would like. Be patient with them. Express your love and support, and give them the time that they need to manage their symptoms.
Do Be Flexible
Mental health and wellness have no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Allow yourself and your teen the flexibility to adjust as needed if things are not helpful or if things that once were helpful are no longer effective.
Do Get Help
The importance of professional support for mental health concerns cannot be understated. Resources are available here.
Do Support Self-care
Self-care is essential for you and your teen. Discuss and explore activities, events, time with friends or loved ones, hobbies, or other positive actions that help your youth feel rejuvenated and equipped to make it through their day.
Do Explore Positive Coping Skills
Coping skills vary by situation and person. Help your young person practice different ways to cope with stressors. For some ideas, start here.
Do Discuss Triggers
If you or your young person notice certain tones, words, activities, people, or other triggers for anxiety, depression, anger, etc. it’s crucial to talk about them. Are some of those things avoidable? If not, is there a way to decrease how often or how long your young person has to be exposed to it? Talk about the emotions that are triggered and discuss coping strategies. Be supportive, even if the reason why it is a trigger is not something that you understand.
Do Ask the Tough Questions
Many caregivers avoid talking about self-harm and suicide with teens. They often feel unequipped to navigate the conversation, are unsure how to bring it up, and fear asking might trigger the young person to start thinking about it. Ask anyway. Ask your teen if they have had thoughts of hurting themself or if they have thoughts of wanting to end their life. If the answer is yes, seek professional help right away. If your teen has a history of self-harm or suicidal ideation/attempts, ask questions about their thoughts regularly. If the answer is no, don’t push, but continue to provide a space for the conversation regularly.
Don’t Try to Fix It
Mental illness is not something that comes with a roadmap or instructions. There isn’t a checklist to complete, and you cannot rush the process of healing. Offering advice can make your teen feel like you are criticizing them. They don’t need you to make their symptoms go away. They need you to support them while they learn to help themselves.
The internet is filled with helpful questionnaires and other information about mental illness. Completing assessments can help you and your teen examine their situation from a different perspective and can help identify symptoms you may have overlooked. However, these are simply a starting point. A medical professional is the only one who can diagnose. Provide them with information you feel is important, and trust professional judgment and diagnostic criteria.
Don’t Take Things Personally
Symptoms of mental illness can be overwhelming. Irritability, aggression, withdrawal, and other symptoms can be hurtful to others. Remember that those actions and words are symptoms. They are not reflective of your relationship with your teen.
Mental illness can be irrational. If an argument is triggered, do what you can to prevent escalation. If you have set a needed boundary, stick with it (Ex. Bedtime is 9:30 on school nights. You cannot be on your phone after that time). If you feel your teen is escalating, do what you can to be supportive and empathetic to try to defuse the situation while maintaining their best interest as the focal point.
Mental health symptoms are not your fault, their fault, or anyone’s fault. Blaming your teen or yourself will only hurt you both.
Don’t Encourage Negative Coping Skills
Caffeine, excessive video games, sugar, and other negative coping skills have the potential to cause more harm than good in the long run. Encourage your teen to explore positive coping skills and self-care instead.
Don’t Dismiss or Minimize
Whether or not you agree or understand where a teen is coming from, dismissing or minimizing their feelings and thoughts as illegitimate or insignificant is hurtful. Do your best to listen and encourage.
Don’t Give Up
Coping with mental illness is challenging and a long journey. Don’t give up. If a treatment is not having the results you were hoping for, talk to your clinician about other options. If you notice worsening symptoms, it’s important to communicate what you are seeing. Regardless of how quickly or slowly treatment is moving, don’t give up.
Mental health and wellness looks different for everyone. The road to recovery is challenging, but with your support, your teen can find the hope and resilience to succeed. The most important thing to remember is to be supportive. Working together, you’ve got this.