How to Help Teens Struggling With Mental Health
Answers to common questions about identifying and compassionately addressing issues of anxiety and depression in adolescents.
Health risks in adolescence are undergoing a major shift. Three decades ago, the biggest health threats to teenagers were binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, cigarettes and illicit drugs. Today, they are anxiety, depression, suicide, self-harm and other serious mental health disorders.
From 2001 to 2019, the suicide rate for American youngsters from ages 10 to 19 jumped 40 percent, and emergency room visits for self-harm rose 88 percent.
Managing a mental health crisis can be challenging for teenagers and their parents. It is often unchartered territory that needs to be navigated with the utmost sensitivity. The guidance below may help.
What’s the best way to start a discussion with an adolescent who may be struggling?
The counsel from experts is resounding: Be clear and direct and don’t shy from hard questions, but also approach these issues with compassion and not blame. Challenging as it may seem to talk about these issues, young people often are desperate to be heard. At the same time, talking to a parent can feel hard.
“Be gentle, be curious, and, over time, be persistent but not insistent,” Dr. Hinshaw explained. “Shame and stigma are a huge part of the equation here, and if you are outraged and judgmental, be prepared for a shutdown.”
“A good number” of teenagers “are practically begging you — without telling you so directly — to stay concerned and loving and to keep open a dialogue,” Dr. Hinshaw said.
For teenagers having trouble opening up, try working together on a shared hobby or activity without bringing up their mental health. Put them at ease, and eventually they may be more willing to share.
These issues are “typically very hard for a teen to talk about with their parent or guardian,” said Nicole Nadell, an assistant professor in pediatrics and psychiatry at Mount Sinai. “Be a patient and active listener at first, reflect back to the teen what they are saying, thinking and feeling.”
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