Facts, Clues & What to Do
We all experience emotional ups and downs from time to time caused by events in our lives. Childhood and adolescence are synonymous with these high and low experiences. Mental health issues, however, go beyond these emotional reactions and become something longer lasting. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states these are medical conditions that cause changes in how we think and feel and in our mood. They are NOT the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing. With proper treatment, people can realize their full potential, cope with the stresses of life, work productively and meaningfully contribute to the world. Without mental health we cannot be fully healthy.
When we think about cancer or diabetes, we don’t wait years for treatment to see how it develops. No, we begin with prevention. This is what we should be doing with mental illnesses, too.
Research has now shown that most mental disorders follow a developmental course that typically starts early in life. So, many people who suffer from mood, anxiety, psychotic disorders, depression, social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia showed signs in adolescence or even earlier. Intervening as early as possible preserves education, employment, social supports, housing and quality of life; not to mention it costs less both emotionally and monetarily.
The instances of mental health disorders have risen dramatically in recent years which may be attributed to increased stress and pressure in school and among peers, as well as the rise in use of social media, smart phones and other new technologies.
Learn the Facts (provided by the National Institute of Mental Health)
- 20% of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition including mood disorders, behavior or conduct disorders and anxiety disorders.
- 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.
- The average delay between onset of symptoms and intervention is 8-10 years. • 37% of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older drop out of school-the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
- 70% of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness.
- Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth ages 10 – 24. o 90% of those who died by suicide had an underlying mental illness. o For a link to our handout on Depression and Suicide: Signs & Symptoms, click here!
Clues to Watch For in your Child
- Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than 2 weeks (e.g., crying regularly, feeling fatigued, feeling unmotivated).
- Trying to harm or kill oneself or making plans to do so. • Out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors that can cause harm to self or others.
- Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart, physical discomfort or fast breathing.
- Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to lose weight; significant weight loss or gain.
- Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships. • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol.
- Drastic changes in behavior, personality or sleeping habits (e.g., waking up early and acting agitated).
- Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that can lead to failure in school.
- Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities like hanging out with friends or going to classes.
What Parents Can Do
- If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, seek advice. Don’t avoid getting help for your child out of shame or fear. With appropriate support, you can find out whether your child has a mental health condition and explore treatment options to help him or her thrive with the help of a specialist.
- Ask your child’s mental health specialist for advice on how to change the way you interact with your child, as well as how to handle difficult behavior.
- To help your child succeed in school, inform your child’s teachers and the school counselor that your child has a mental health condition. If necessary, work with the school staff to develop an academic plan that meets your child’s needs.
- Consider seeking family counseling or the help of support groups, too. It’s important for you and your loved ones to understand your child’s illness and his or her feelings, as well as what all of you can do to help your child. • Seek ways to relax and have fun with your child.
- Praise his or her strengths and abilities.
- Explore new stress management techniques, which might help you understand how to calmly respond to stressful situations.
- Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 800-950-NAMI to find out what services and supports are available in your community.
- Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message by texting “NAMI” to 741-741. In case of crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
Teenagers naturally go through ups and downs; but when the lows become especially low, and are long lasting, it may be much more serious. According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in approximately 4600 lives lost each year.
- Depressed mood (feeling sad or empty)
- Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Significant changes in weight/appetite
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Agitation, restlessness, irritability
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Feeling worthless, hopeless, guilt
- Inability to think or concentrate, indecisiveness
- Unable to cope
- Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation, suicide attempt or plan
Signs of depression
- Feeling trapped, hopeless
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Lack of energy or wild variations in energy levels
- Dramatic changes in behavior, actions, attitude
- Increase in anxiety/anxiety related illness (headaches, stomach aches)
- Changes in eating habits, sleep patterns, or personal appearance
- Being unusually quiet or unusually aggressive/angry
- Dropping out of hobbies, sports, school, work
Suicide: Acute Warning Signs
- No reason for living, no sense of purpose in life
- Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
- Feeling trapped, like there’s no way out · Hopelessness · Withdrawing · Uncontrolled anger, rage, seeking revenge
- Dramatic mood changes
- Preoccupation with death, dying, or suicide including joking about death or suicide, creative writing, poetry, artwork
- A sudden elated mood following a time of depression
- A previous suicide attempt
- Serious talk of suicide, or making a plan
- Reckless behavior
- Increase in alcohol or drug use
- Giving away prize possessions, saying goodbye, writing a will, writing farewell letters
Suicide: Acute Warning Signs you may hear:
- “Nothing ever goes right for me.”
- “It’ll all be over soon.”
- “Whatever, nothing matters anyway.”
- “I might as well kill myself.”
- “I hate life.”
- “Everyone would be better off without me.”
- “I just can’t take it anymore.”
- “I wish I was dead.”
Don’t leave the person alone. Remove any object that could be used in a suicide attempt such as a gun, sharp knife, razor blade, or drugs. Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a mental health professional. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK). All local calls are answered 24 hours a day by trained counselors at the Contra Costa Crisis Center and are treated confidentially.
About Adolescents and Stress
All adolescents experience stress and anxiety. It’s important to distinguish normal levels of stress with overwhelming stress. Teens are experiencing an overwhelming sense of unease, worry, and/or fear about upcoming events or activities with an uncertain outcome.
Many teens face pressures to perform academically, achieve high GPA and SAT scores, participate in sports at a very competitive level, get into the best colleges, do community service; and many times have no down time for themselves. They feel they are on a treadmill and do not know how to get off.
Additionally, kids today are exposed to a lot of things that are really difficult to handle: friends or relatives who have committed suicide, or may be addicted to drugs, not to mention all the usual pressures teens have socially. In order to cope with the tremendous amount of stress, teens many times turn to drugs, alcohol and prescription drugs as an escape from their reality.
As a parent, you can help your teen relieve their stress by:
- Spending time with your son or daughter, asking them about their fears, their worries as well as what they look forward to and what excites them in life.
- Paying attention to the triggers and switches in your teen’s life that cause them to feel anxious. The more you spend time talking together, the more chances your teen will open up and confide things that are causing them concern.
- Helping them balance their schedules so they are not over committed.
- Not putting pressure on them to perform at a level that they are not capable of.
- Making sure they eat a balanced diet and get plenty of rest. Their bodies need a lot of sleep as they go through adolescence.
- Be sure to seek a profession if you are concerned.
As moms and dads, we also need to give our teens permission to say no. It could be that AP class, piano lesson, math tutor, soccer practice or community service that is overwhelming your child. It’s okay to allow your son or daughter to back away from certain activities. Talk to them, “It sounds like your plate is really full right now. Is there something that you can give up that would lighten your load?” This is not an excuse to relinquish responsibilities, but it’s allowing your teen the freedom to balance their lives.
Your kids need you. Spending quality time together is crucial to helping them cope with stress. This might mean giving up your weekly golf game in favor of having breakfast with your son. It could mean letting go of that committee you’re a part of to go shopping with your daughter. In these critical formative years, kids need their parents desperately; you will have plenty of time later to do the things you want to do.
After a long day of being exposed to a thousand different ideas and influences, make your house a place where your kids feel safe and protected, free of anxiety or undue pressures. Have dinner as a family telling stories and jokes instead of quizzing then about their day. Play games or watch TV together. Encourage them. Let your home be a welcome stop for your teen after a long day of taking on the world.