May 7, 2022, was National Children’s Mental Health Day.
According to a 2013 Review of School Climate Research, close to 20% of children and young adults in the United States have an identifiable mental health problem. Of those, 70% do not receive the care they need. Children whose social, emotional, or behavioral difficulties are not addressed are more likely to exhibit a diminished capacity to learn, drop out of school, experience strained family relationships, enter the juvenile justice system, and abuse substances.
The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected our nation’s youth. The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that in 2020, 1 in 5 young people report that the pandemic had a significant negative impact on their mental health and that 1 in 10 people under the age of 18 experienced a mental health condition following a COVID-19 diagnosis.
As a parent of a teenager, I find these statistics troubling. I decided to educate myself further about issues surrounding children’s mental health and found a helpful parent webinar presented by the American Psychological Association, “Bridging the Gap: Parents and Teens Talking Together,” that provided me with valuable information on engaging with my child and having a conversation with him about mental health.
The information presented provided me with tips and skills for having a conversation about difficult topics such as mental health with teens, especially when the teen initiates the conversation. I would like to share a few of those here:
Do your best as a parent to stay calm and listen carefully to what your teen is saying to you. At times as a parent, I have a knee-jerk reaction to the way I handle issues brought up by my child. I realize that I need to take the time to hear him out.
Understand that initiating this conversation with you in the first place may be difficult for your teen. As a parent, I feel that I should be the one to open up a conversation with my child about things like suicide or depression. Today’s children are much more knowledgeable about these topics than I was at their age, and their curiosity may have them want to talk about these things before we as parents are ready.
Validate your teen’s feelings. It’s okay for your child to express their feelings and concerns relating to situations that impact their mental health and we as parents have the ability to discuss their concerns with empathy.
If your teen initiating the conversation with you brings up a lot of emotions, take a break. This does not need to be a one-time conversation. It may be healthy to continue the talk with your child when the both of you are in the right frame of mind.
When we as parents initiate the conversation about mental health, the following tips may prove useful:
Take some time to prepare for the conversation. The internet contains a wealth of information that may help you expand your knowledge on the subject. Links to helpful websites for parents may be found at the end of this article.
Find a good time to talk. Personally, I find the best time to engage in conversation with my child is while we are driving to or from his school or while going out for a family event. Each parent may find they have different times to speak with their child, such as during family dinner or during a quiet night at home. Do what is best for you and your teen.
Use “I” statements to explain how you feel and any concerns you may have. An example of this is: “I have been concerned that you have become anxious lately. I am here to help you.” For parents who do not have practice in using “I” statements, this may be difficult at first. Using “I” statements places no blame or judgment on the child.
Having these conversations with our children is the first step to addressing our child’s mental health. At times, parents may not want to seek professional help for their children when it is needed. Feeling embarrassed or ashamed to seek mental health services because of the opinions of others is a form of stigma that is not easily overcome. Being confident that you are looking out for the welfare of your child is never something to be afraid of.
These talks that we may have with our children do not need to be limited to when we notice something is “off” with our child. As a result of my career background, education, and training, I may have an easier time than most when it comes to speaking with my children about difficult topics. With practice it may become a little easier for others.
Organizations like the CNMI Systems of Care focus on providing mental health services and support to children and youth 21 years old and younger who are experiencing or may be at-risk of developing severe emotional challenges. Their caring staff may be reached at (670) 664-4604.
Online resources I have found useful include the American Psychological Association website. Please visit www.apa.org/pi/families for more about Children, Youth and Families and mental health. Additionally, Mental Health America has information about youth mental Health. Their website may found at: https://mhanational.org/childrens-mental-health.
If you or someone you know is experiencing barriers while attempting to access mental health services, please contact the Northern Marianas Protection & Advocacy Systems, Inc. at (670) 235-7273. NMPASI also provides information and referral services to people with mental health needs through the Protection & Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness program.
Greg Borja (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Greg Borja is the executive director of the Northern Marianas Protection and Advocacy Systems Inc.