As a licensed clinical social worker who has spent over 16 years working in youth mental health, sadly I was not surprised to read about the health advisory issued by the U.S. Surgeon General in December that kids are experiencing a mental health crisis. In a statement from Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy,
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade.”
Since the pandemic these trends have escalated with emergency room visits for suicide attempts among girls between the ages of 12 and 17 increasing by 26% during summer 2020 and by 50% during winter 2021, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Decades of research has shown that the onset of mood disorders are significantly impacted by disruption in social rhythms. Girls can be more affected by these disruptions as relationships tend to play a more central role in their lives. Remote schooling, activity and event cancellations, in addition to more time spent online all may be playing a part in the trends we are seeing in our kids.
As a parent, it’s important to know how to talk about mental health with our kids. Often children feel confused, overwhelmed and ashamed, which leads them to keep their feelings to themselves and turn to destructive behaviors instead of turning to us.
If you see a concerning change in your child’s mood and behavior, tell them you notice, you care and you want to help. Assure them that there is nothing wrong with them, listen and valide how they feel. As parents and adults, so often we are quick to want to fix things, but it is much more useful to create space for a child to talk, laying the foundation of trust. This encourages our children to come to us in the future without fear or judgement.
If your child’s mood and behavior changes have lasted more than two weeks, and all of the normal mood boosting activities don’t seem to help, you may need to investigate talk therapy as a first course of action. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) and licensed clinical professional counselors (LCPC) are qualified professionals for talk therapy. There are many qualified, wonderful resources right here in our community – some even available for free or sliding scale fee based on income. To get your child on board with talk therapy, it’s important to normalize it. Explain that taking care of mental health is just as important as taking care of physical health.
However, in more rare, serious and acute cases of mental health distress you may need to take your child to the hospital. Signs of acute mental health distress include self harm, reckless behavior, talking about death or suicide, giving away belongings, saying good bye, or feeling hopeless and like a burden.
Although we can’t control our changing environment or how our children respond to the environment, we can change how we respond to our children. Being vigilant, knowing the warning signs and being prepared to have conversations about mental health can protect our kids, build trusting relationships and grow their resilience.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois provides counseling services to all children seeking counseling within the ages of 6 through 17 whom are St. Clair County community members. Visit www.bbbsil.org/counseling to learn more.
Heather Freed, LCSW
President & CEO