This Is Serious — We Must Talk Mental Health

Dr. Delaney Ruston – It is a new year, and this is serious. It is a REALLY hard time for our youth. This article is about ways to connect with our kids to give them pearls of insight to support their emotional wellbeing. A bonus is that such conversations help our kids be more equipped to help others, such as friends who are struggling, now or in the future.

I don’t want any of us — parents, teachers, aunts, coaches, etc. — to look back and wonder, “Why didn’t I talk more about mental health issues with my kids during the winter of this awful pandemic?”

And, mental health issues overlap with screen time issues, of course.

There is still almost no published data on the mental health ramifications being experienced by youth now during Covid. One of the few surveys out there was conducted back in May and was a nationally representative survey of 3,300 young people aged 13-19. They found that approximately 35% of those surveyed reported that during Covid, they are having poorer emotional and cognitive health (referring in part to their ability to concentrate). 

What really got me was the finding that a whopping 40% of respondents said that they had not heard any adult from their school mention anything about how students could get emotional help if they needed it.

As I write this, I’m feeling the deep frustration I have felt for decades, as a physician and as a mental health advocate, about the fact that our society consistently under-supports our youth and their families’ mental health needs.  

And at the same time I type this, I have an ache in my heart that makes me want to hold every child’s hand in this country (and the world) and make their emotional pain dissolve into a mist that would just float away. Yes, I am emotional. These days, I see so many patients in my clinic who are struggling, including many teens — they all deserve more. 

When we take the time to make mental health conversations happen in our home, we are creating pillars of support with our very words, and we are laying a foundation for our kids to become advocates for more mental health resources, now and in the future.  

So let’s do this! Today I share five pearls with the hope you will share them with kids in your orbit (as well as with other families by passing on this blog if you find it helpful). 

  1. Youth look up mental health topics online — some of which are helpful and accurate, and some of which are false and harmful.  In an important survey done two years ago of 14 to 22-year-olds, there are many examples of what teens are going online to find information about. For example, 48% of all respondents had gone online for information on mental health issues. And not surprisingly, respondents who had depression symptoms, 90% went online to look for mental health information. 
    • Pearl: Talk about that statistic with your child, so they know they can feel comfortable coming to you to discuss these topics. So many teens tell me that they worry that if they ask questions, parents will get overly concerned or nosy. Try hard to let them know you are aware of this concern. It is also key to let them know NOW, even if all is fine with them, about some trusted websites to get information. There is a good chance they will have friends they want to get this info to as well. You can visit our Resource Page for many trusted services and websites about these topics.
  2. It’s not just about what info we impart to our kids, but how we engage them is crucial too. Pop quizzes are great for this. Here is one to consider:Parent Pop Quiz: Question: How many adolescents reported in 2019 that in the past 12 months, they received some type of mental health help at school? Answer: 15.4%It is unfortunate that because school is mainly online, many of those kids no longer have the same access to whatever mental health support they were getting, be it from a counselor, a social worker, a teacher, or other people. Kids who are particularly hurt by this fact are those from poorer families.  I was speaking recently (over Zoom) at a conference for school counselors, and they told me how many of them are covering for absent teachers due to Covid. This means fewer counseling services are available than ever before, while the need is greater than ever.
    • Pearl: We must talk with our kids to see if they were getting support at school when it was in person. Have they been able to find ways to get some of that support now? Do they want to brainstorm with you about how to find more support?  Do they have friends who could benefit from support but now might not be getting it due to the school situation?
  3. Recent research reveals what we intuitively know which is that youth involvement in extracurricular activities is associated with better mental health. Studies have shown that such activities help with things like social skills and academics, but the research I just referenced specifically addresses mental health. I know your first thought, “Yes, but we are in the time of Covid, and there are so few opportunities.” So true! But still, there are indeed many activities kids can be doing. The thing is, if you have a teen, it might be the case that what my husband often says may ring true, “I know the perfect way to get my kids not want to do something is to suggest they do it.”This is where experimenting as a parent is key. Here is an experiment, see if your teen will do a mini-challenge with you (or in the family/siblings). See who can write down in one minute the most number of outdoor activities.Here is another area of experimentation. This has to do with the fact that, unfortunately, we live in a society that considers and promotes families as isolated entities in silos. It is time to push against that. Can you work with other parents, old friends, and others to find new people to help make activities for your kids? As one example, this week, parents and kids in my neighborhood are going to meet up at 3:30 on Thursday to “Beautify Our Planet” (we call it BOP). We will be picking up trash in our alleys together, socially distant, and enjoying our company while cleaning up.
    • Pearl: Reach outside of your immediate circle to help find activities your kids will try — and will thus have the other benefit of getting them away from all the media messages, ads, eye strain, and other complexities of screen time
  4. Our kids need to know that getting nightly adequate sleep is a major defense against mental health problems. Having devices out of the bedroom during sleep time has repeatedly been shown to help with sleep quantity and quality. All parents I talk with say they would love to have devices out of the children’s bedroom, but there are many challenges to that. Yes, yes, I know it is really hard, but it is doable. 
    • Pearl: Consider listening as a family to The Screenagers Podcast, the episode called New Science On Sleep, Our Kids, And What To Do if you need help making this healthy mental practice become a reality in your home — even for older teens at home. 
  5. Many youth and teens think seriously about suicide at some time in their development. Pre-Covid, 19% of teens reported having thought “seriously” about suicide in the previous year. That is a HUGE number in its own right, especially compared to adults of which pre-Covid 4% of them said they have “seriously” considered suicide. And now, with Covid, these numbers are going up. Fully 25% of young adults, ages 18 to 24 years old, report that in the past 30 days, they have seriously considered suicide.
    • Pearl: Talk this week with your kids about the reality that having thoughts about suicide are common. We know from science that teens’ emotional brains are incredibly active and can more easily get consumed with dark thoughts and feelings of hopelessness. The vast majority of youth that has such thoughts never go past just having those thoughts, but those thoughts are hard — and feeling alone with the thoughts and having them fester inside only makes things worse. Talking with our kids about the commonality of these types of thoughts is a gift and a tool. Youth feel validated, and it is a tool in that they are more likely to talk with you about this topic.

All the ideas for discussion starters are in the pearls above.