Young people are more open about mental health, but barriers remain | Health

Mia Flegal speaks to college students about her bouts of anxiety and depression and the toll mental illness can have on children and teens, when a female student raises her hand to ask a heartbreaking question:

“What should I do if no one believes me? »

When children struggle with their mental well-being and mental health, it can feel different than it does for adults – and the signals of distress can manifest in subtle or easily written off ways.

Flegal, who just finished 10th grade at Nashua High School North, said she first experienced symptoms of her generalized anxiety disorder when she was about 8 years old. She started having trouble sleeping and started noticing that the worry made it hard to breathe.

“It starts with this pit in my stomach,” Flegal said. “That hole in your stomach is starting to move up to your chest, and you feel like someone is squeezing you.”

She remembers waking up in a cold sweat at the age of 10 on a trip away from home. Her mother, Sheelu Flegal, remembers picking her up soon after a sleepover when the usually outgoing and talkative Mia felt trapped in her anxiety.

Her classmate at Nashua North, Aarika Roy, said she remembered her anxiety starting with an upset stomach when she was in fifth grade.

Erin Murphy, who is now finishing her 11th year at Windham, recalled when she came home from college to find herself shaking, unable to stop crying and hyperventilating.

“It’s hard to tell if this is some sort of growth phase or if it’s becoming something,” Flegal said.

While it’s upsetting to think of elementary and middle-aged children struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental illnesses, Flegal said, it does happen. Being able to talk about bad feelings can help.

“It can’t be a subject that’s super quiet,” Flegal said.

The pandemic and growing panic around social media has brought to light the enormity of the mental health issues facing children and adolescents today.

According to a survey by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in three high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic. Half said they constantly felt sad or hopeless. (

Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is gaining a reputation for being more open about mental health, but Flegal still isn’t sure her peers are comfortable talking about their mental health in a meaningful, serious way. .

“A lot of what Gen Z does is make a joke about it. But making a joke about it is not the same as asking for help,” Flegal said. “If the jokes are the first step, that’s fine, but ultimately we have to encourage people to ask for help.”

Mia Flegal

Mia Flegal at her home in Nashua on June 10, 2022. She struggled with anxiety and now helps young students with mental health.

Ask for help

More and more resources are coming online to deal with acute crises, such as New Hampshire’s new “Rapid Response Access Point” for people who need crisis help, and the Helpline. national listener, 988, which will be activated on July 16. And the state hopes to open more beds this fall at Hampstead Hospital, for children and teens who need more intensive care.

Community mental health centers across the state can connect people to treatment and make connections to help with other aspects of a person’s life.

Rik Cornell, vice-president of community relations at the Greater Manchester Community Mental Health Center, said the center had been able to place staff in almost every school in the city to work with students and train staff, and was providing similar help to summer programs.

“For so many years sanity has sat and waited for people to come to it. That’s not what we do anymore,” Cornell said. “We can’t keep picking up the pieces. We must prevent these parts from collapsing.

Yet there are barriers to getting help.

When Aarika Roy, Flegal’s classmate at Nashua North, had a bad anxiety attack two years ago, Roy said her family tried to call therapists all over New Hampshire and Massachusetts for nearly two years, but they had never been able to get an appointment. with a psychologist.

Cornell said there was a serious and growing shortage of psychologists, therapists and all sorts of other healthcare workers – but he said families with plenty of money had an easier time getting a therapy and other mental health care.

Many therapists are reluctant to accept health insurance because it can be difficult to persuade insurance companies to pay for their services. Cornell said some therapists are accepting new patients — as long as those patients can pay cash.

But Cornell said the 10 community mental health centers in New Hampshire ( can help people who do not have access to mental health care.

“Call us,” Cornell said. “We’ll see what we can do to get you in.”

To manage all alone

Unable to see a therapist, Roy said she found other ways to deal with her anxiety – drawing on her family’s Hindu spirituality and even browsing YouTube for videos on breathing and meditation.

Flegal said she also found ways to cope.

She started keeping a diary after bouts of anxiety, working through her thoughts. In the middle of an attack, when she’s stuck in a cycle of hyperventilating and crying, she counts her breaths, or grabs a few ice cubes and squeezes them to “shock” her body out of the cycle.

These coping mechanisms have evolved over the years, Flegal said, but she said having people to talk to — family, friends, trusted teachers — helps her stay informed. things.

In the pandemic, however, Flegal said, much of that support network has disappeared — an experience shared by many children and adults.

Isolated from friends, with limited chances to interact with teachers as Nashua remained in remote learning for much of the 2020-21 school year, Flegal said she would roll out of bed minutes before a Zoom lesson and would sit quietly in front of his computer. with the camera off. When she came out of class, she would go in the shower, put on some music and cry.

“I was stuck in a hole,” she said. “You haven’t seen an end to it, and it’s so difficult.” She was afraid to ask for help, worried that she would somehow be a burden on her family or increase tensions at home.

But when she acknowledged those feelings of despair, Flegal said, her family listened, supported and helped.

“Asking for help doesn’t make you weak and it doesn’t have a negative effect on those around you,” she said.

feel less alone

Family members, teachers, coaches – anyone who gets to know a child or adolescent well – can keep an eye out for changes in behavior and ask questions about them, such as changes in sleep or hygiene , said Diana Schryver, clinical co-ordinator of the children’s department at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester.

Adults can ask behavioral questions first, gently, and from there open up a conversation for a young person to talk about their emotions and mental well-being.

“One of the things we talk about to help people do is develop their observation skills,” Schryver said. “It may not be a crisis, but it could be a building crisis.”

Murphy, the student from Windham, recalls an eighth grade teacher taking her aside one day, when she came to school in her pajamas and with her hair tied up, to ask how she was doing . This conversation gave Murphy the space to admit for the first time that she was not well.

“He asked me if I was okay, and the answer was no,” Murphy said.

She is grateful that the professor made the effort to check.

Feeling safe to talk about feelings, especially difficult feelings, is important even for young children. Flegal said she works with community groups to develop programs where she can talk to younger kids, talk about her mental health history and try to help other kids feel comfortable talking about their own feelings.

Flegal said she was open about her mental health issues because she wanted others — especially young children — to see that it is safe to talk about their mental health. To this girl who asked what to do if no one believed her about her mental health issues, Flegal said to keep talking.

Schryver said the same thing.

“To this kid, I would say, don’t stop talking. Don’t stop asking for help until you feel you are getting the help you need.

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