Mental health is on everyone’s mind in the wake of the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, as well as the news that suicides are up in nearly every state in recent years. While the focus over the course of the past week has been on adult mental health, many people with mental health issues first experience them as teens or young adults, making prioritizing adolescent mental health critical to our ability as a society to begin to gain control over this public health crisis.
Recent studies show that more and more teens are struggling with mental health. Major depression is on the rise among Americans of all age groups, but the increase is particularly pronounced in teens and young adults. The Health of America Report, a study by Blue Cross Blue Shield, found that 2.6 percent of youths aged 12 to 17 were diagnosed with major depression in 2016, a 63 percent increase from 1.6 percent in 2013.
Anxiety disorders are also increasingly prevalent, particularly among teens. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 31.9 percent of adolescents have had an anxiety disorder. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
“We are hugely concerned,” says Denise Pope, PhD, senior lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Education, co-founder of Challenge Success, and author of “Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids.”
It’s important to note, however, that the higher figures may also to some extent be the result of increased parental awareness of early warnings signs as well as more vigilant teachers and school administrations who may be quicker to recognize problems in students, says Dr. Khalid Afzal, assistant professor and director of child and adolescent psychiatry at University of Chicago Medicine.
The reassuring news is that help is widely available. “It’s not a hopeless situation. A condition like anxiety doesn’t have to mean life-long suffering. It may always be something you work on, but it won’t always be controlling you,” says Dr. Debra Kissen, clinical director of Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Center in Chicago and member of the ADAA.
“These mental health issues are treatable, and treatment can be extremely effective,” says Dr. John Walkup, Head of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
But, seeking treatment as soon as symptoms are identified is important. “If you don’t treat someone when they first present with symptoms, they cope solely by avoiding the issue,” says Walkup. “Then they fail to develop good coping skills, they struggle with tasks in high school and they don’t make a powerful transition to adulthood.”
Help Teens Take Charge
Walkup also stresses the need for adolescents and young adults to learn about managing their own mental health independently. “They do fine when living with family, but then they don’t manage their mental when they are on their own,” says Walkup. He stresses that providers need “to get good at preparing kids to care for themselves over the course of a lifetime.”
“Treatment works, but individuals need to respect both the treatment and the power of the condition to disrupt their power to live productively,” he says. “Don’t mess around with it or it can come back to bite you.”
Recipe for Success: 5 Important Steps to Positive Mental Health
Parents should work together with their kids to both empower and support them by encouraging behaviors and practices that promote positive mental health. Here are five powerful tips from the experts:
1. Get Enough Sleep
The experts all agreed that one thing parents can and should do is encourage their adolescents to get plenty of sleep. Pope says teens need between eight to 10 hours, and notes that that amount is not radically different from the recommend amount of sleep for adults. Here’s looking at you, moms and dads — Pope encourages parents to act as good sleep role models and make it clear you prioritize rest, too.
Admittedly, you can’t make a teen sleep, but you can make sure they know why sleep is important, how lack of it impacts them, setting and enforcing curfews, and making sure they don’t have their phones and devices in their bedroom at night. (Have them charge in your room. A central place like the kitchen makes it a little too easy to retrieve the phone late at night.) Schools can take action by moving school start times. Here are some more ways to help set your kids up for a healthy night of sleep.
2. Implement a Routine
Having structure to each day is critical. “A daily routine would be the number one thing for every kid and parent to have, one that gives a sense of purpose and structure,” says Walkup. Also, kids, even teens, do better when they know what to expect.
Walkup suggests sitting down with a 24-hour schedule and filling it in, starting with sleep. Then, fill the rest of the tasks to be done each day, including some time for relationships and down time. He says some parents allow kids to try to cram more than 24 hours of activities into one day, and that’s not OK. Pope agrees, urging parents to cut down on stress levels by avoiding overscheduling in the first place.
While parents may feel uneasy about their teen giving up an advanced class or activity to have that down time, Pope encourages them to “look at the costs. If you have a healthy kid right now, you don’t want to lose out on that.” She adds, “Health has to come first.”
3. Don’t Skimp on Down Time
Respecting a routine does not have to equate to maintaining a packed schedule of activities all day long. The experts agree that including down time in a teen’s schedule is crucial. “Make sure they have half an hour to take a walk or hit balls with friends or play guitar for fun, not practicing for a concert,” says Pope, noting that all of those activities are positive coping strategies for both teens and adults managing stress.
Pope reports that schools are seeking new ways to lessen student stress, too. One school in San Francisco seeks to soften life’s edges, literally, with couches and pillows and hot tea in an area where students can go to just chill out. “Not everything has to be hard and rigid,” says Pope.
4. Make Time for Friends and Family
A daily routine that includes both hard work and pleasurable experiences “builds a strong social system and doesn’t leave kids a lot of time to be on the web, which they don’t need, because of that strong system that’s in place,” says Walkup. And while that strong social system should include plenty of friend time, it shouldn’t come at the expense of family time.
Walkup says that a teen’s daily routine should ideally include some family time in the evening. “Some families can’t do that because they have too much going on, but if you don’t have time for family, you have too much going on,” he says. “Families need to take stock and do what’s important.”
If nothing else, families should make a concerted effort to prioritize at least a small amount of quality time together each night around the dinner table. Children who have dinner with their parents five or more days a week eat healthier, perform better in school, are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and report enjoying closer relationships with their parents than children who don’t.
Afzal agrees, reiterating that this time together helps open up channels of communication between parents and children. He urges parents to pay attention and express a desire to learn about their children’s interests and also do a great deal of modeling, including acknowledging mistakes and apologizing for them. Those actions make it possible for the relationship to be a two-way street. “The time of one-way authoritarian parenthood is dying. I’m not saying be your child’s best friends. There should be a structural hierarchy and they need to have boundaries, but make sure it is a two-way relationship,” says Afzal.
5. Model Mindfulness
Pope says she has seen some very positive outcomes at schools where they have implemented programs teaching mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or other exercise. Walkup agrees, noting that people have been using those techniques to manage challenges since the beginning of time.
Yoga and meditation during the teenage years and beyond provide not only physical but also mental health benefits in a number of ways, including stress reduction, improved mood, and increased physical fitness.
Consider taking a yoga class with your teen as a fun way to unwind together and bond.
As we’ve already mentioned, when it comes to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, treatment works, and there are a multitude of resources and organizations at the ready to help you or someone you love who is struggling. Here are some helpful resources and expert tips:
Parents often struggle to discern between moodiness that is typical teenage behavior and what could be a larger mental health issue like depression. Here’s what you need to look out for.
There are many conversations that parents are uncomfortable having with their kids, but talking about suicide is particularly challenging. The topic is an important one, though, so we asked experts for their answers to some common questions parents have about whether to even broach the subject and, if they do decide to, what is the best way to do so.
Be sure that your loved ones know they can text 847HELP to 274637. This text reaches Text-A-Tip, a text crisis hotline that provides complete anonymity and access to local licensed mental health professionals.
Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop to the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”