How often have you or someone you know been shocked to discover that a child in your midst is suffering from a significant mental health disorder? The National Institute of Mental Health explains that in 2017, 9.4% of US 12 to 17 year olds, an estimated 2.3 million, had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment. And, according to childtrends.org, “While research on the pandemic’s effects on mental health is still in the early stages, current evidence shows a surge in anxiety and depression among children and adolescents since the pandemic began.”
“When we have less positives going on in our life and more negatives, it increases our stress, MARESA (Marquette-Alger Regional Education Service Agency) school social worker Ann Lacombe explains. At the age a lot of the students I see are at, interactions with peers or sports or people overall is their main positive. When something that’s really fun is taken away from you, it can be rough. I’ve seen a change in the mood of students. They’re dealing with different stressors than they’ve ever had to deal with before. Organized sports are a good environment for making new friends. Being without that made this a really difficult year for students to organically make new friends. Lunch and recess had to be less social than in past years for everyone’s safety. A lot of the fun times students looked forward to looked very different for them.
When a child is suffering from a mental health disorder, the sooner we can step in and support them, the better. LaCombe says red flags to be on the alert for include:
- Avoiding or missing activities the child used to engage in–sports, time with friends, school in general
- Changes in sleep patterns—way too much or not at all
- Changes in eating habits—sudden weight loss or gain
- Sudden changes in mood—observing body language and facial expressions
- Hurting themselves or talking about hurting themselves or talking about death
- Withdrawing from social interactions in general
- Sudden changes in friendships
- Substance use
- Change in performance overall—sudden failing grades, withdrawal from effort in anything
“Trust your gut. I think parents know their kids best. If you get a sense something’s not right, a great first step is approaching the child and saying, ‘Hey, I’m worried about you, and I care about you. How can I support you right now?’ You can open that door to communicating with you and trusting you, even if you don’t get much response right away,” says LaCombe. “Focus on not being judgmental, and no matter what they tell you, not being overly reactive. Let your child know ‘I’m not here to judge you or get you in trouble. I just want to help. I hope you can be honest with me about what’s going on.’ Then look into what additional support may help your child.”
“You can check whether your child’s school guidance counselor has noticed any changes in your child’s behavior, and see what options they may have at school or in the community. If he or she doesn’t want to go to school because of a conflict with a peer, connect with the school on this. Otherwise, meeting with your primary care doctor can be a great place to start so you can get their thoughts and recommendations on where to go. They’ll be able to look at a list of providers that your insurance covers, and also check if something medical is contributing to what your child’s experiencing. Often the first things students with anxiety notice are physical signs—‘My heart is pounding, and I just feel shaky and dizzy.’ This way the doctor can make sure there’s nothing else causing those symptoms outside of a mental health challenge,” adds LaCombe.
Parents can also contact their school’s social worker. LaCombe says, “If we don’t immediately have an idea of a resource in the community, we’ll get back to them with a resource or article, and look at how else we can support them if we don’t have an answer right away. When parents reach out right away and are interested in making some changes at home, we can see improvements so quickly. It’s so helpful for them to reach out, even if it’s just asking questions and for resources. We’re happy to do that.”
Another resource is North Care Network, which can do a screening to see if you qualify for community mental health services, and if not, point you to other options available.
LaCombe reminds, “There’s nothing wrong with asking someone if there’s something going on, or saying that we’re worried. We’re often worried about offending, or hurting, or annoying the person. Even if it’s something small we’re noticing, even if they say no, it’s worth bringing up. Make sure you’re opening that door. Let your child know, ‘I’m worried about you; I care about you.’ They may not be ready to talk about it yet. Let them know ‘I am here and am ready to talk about this whenever you’re ready. You’re never going to be in trouble for talking with me about this.’ Opening the door is the most important thing in those initial conversations.”
Excerpted from the Fall 2021 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2021, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.