Focus on youth this Mental Health Awareness Month | The scene

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and now more than ever, we need to shine a light on the mental health issues affecting our young people. We’ve seen a decline in teen mental health over the past decade, including a 40% increase in persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In March, the CDC released new data that revealed that more than a third (37%) of high school students reported having poor mental health in 2021. It is becoming increasingly important to help members of each community with the tools to recognize mental illness and the resources to support our young people.

As a parent or guardian, it is important to understand the warning signs of declining mental health. Physical symptoms can include dramatic changes in sleep, severe exhaustion, low energy, frequent irritability, or changes in appetite. Other possible red flags include changes in daily activities, such as an unusual decline in function in school or social activities, difficulty performing familiar tasks, recent social withdrawal, impaired concentration, or loss of interest in activities your child once enjoyed. Parents and guardians should also watch out for any strange, unusual, or peculiar behavior.

Many indicators of mental health issues lurk below the surface and revolve around the internal processing of emotions, which your child may not verbalize. These include dramatic changes in depressive emotions or feelings, loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity, excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt. In more severe cases, your child may detach from reality or experience paranoia and hallucinations. They might start to behave more recklessly or impulsively, resort to nonsuicidal self-harm, or become suicidal.

How you can support your child if they need help

Some behavioral changes and experimentation are part and parcel of growing up, but all of the changes mentioned should be considered as a possible warning sign, especially when multiple factors are occurring simultaneously. If your child is struggling with mental health issues, it is important to detect it early and seek treatment.

If you think your child is in pain, take the following steps to provide support:

Monitor their symptoms: Parents should monitor whether their child’s symptoms are getting worse. When the symptoms (mentioned above) inhibit a child’s ability to study or relate to others, it’s time to seek help from a doctor or mental health professional. If a child has suicidal thoughts or intentions or thoughts of harming others, parents should help them seek immediate attention.

Make sure they feel supported: Strengthening social connections is key to improving mood. Children can foster peer relationships while at school or during extracurricular activities. You can also talk to your child and spend quality time together to make sure they feel supported.

Encourage screen-free time: Disconnecting from screens and surrounding yourself with face-to-face interpersonal relationships is key to improving mental health. Have times of the day focused on face-to-face interactions, such as having dinner without phones or other electronic devices at the table for parents or children.

Make sure they get enough sleep: One of the key steps to improving mental health from the comfort of home is getting quality, uninterrupted sleep. School-age children 5 to 12 years old should get 9 to 12 hours of sleep each night. Before going to bed, make sure your child turns off all electronic devices and encourage him to relax before falling asleep.

Do things with them that bring them joy: go outside, exercise, listen to music, or watch a TV show or light movie with them to boost communication, social support, and connectedness, thereby improving their mood. If they have a favorite sport or hobby, find out if they can get involved with a local sports club or community group.

Talk to your child’s pediatrician: If you think your child may have mental health issues, seek help from a medical professional. Your child’s doctor will help you understand whether these warning signs are symptoms of bigger problems or just minor changes in your child’s behavior. If your child does not have a primary care provider, your health plan should be able to help connect you with an appropriate caregiver.

All stages of life present unique challenges, but adolescence is difficult and brings robust changes and transitions. This is why we must continue to monitor our children as mental health issues continue to rise across the country. As caregivers, we play a key role in detecting symptoms early and getting the help our teens need. Discussing these concerns and getting help early if needed is key to ensuring our children develop more positive mental health and overall well-being.

By Dr. Shreya Nagula, Medical Director of MVP Health Care for Children’s Behavioral Health Services. MVP Health Care is a leading health services company in the North East.

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