For Teens, When to Ask for Mental Health Support Isn’t Always Clear
An honest look at the ways women are taking care of their minds and bodies in 2018.
Depression diagnoses in teens are on the rise. Since 2013, the number of 12- to 17-year-olds diagnosed with mental health issues has gone up by 63 percent. And while that number may seem terrifying, it’s actually a good thing. It means more teens are getting the support they need in order to thrive, and that fewer are suffering in silence. But according to some pediatric mental health experts, the rapid growth and change that a teen brain goes through can also hinder how capable teens are of recognizing when to ask for help.
Dr. Jill Emanuele of the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children struggling with mental health and learning disorders, advises young people to take a bit of time to reflect on just how they’re feeling at any given time. The doctor recommends that teens work to become more aware of positive and negative emotions as an act of self-care — something that many people might not consider a self-care act at all.
“If [teens] can understand the concept of ‘this feels good, this doesn’t feel good,’ long- and short-term, if they can actually take a look and say, ‘I’ve actually not been happy in several weeks now, something is wrong’ — if they can actually have the capacity to say that to someone and ask for help from a trusting adult or a friend they trust, that act of self-care can be enough to get the ball rolling for the help they may need,” says Dr. Emanuele.
At the end of the day, however, it’s up to teens to take control of their lives — something that’s difficult and often scary. “There has to be a willingness to want to change,” Dr. Emanuele says. “And so many teens don’t want to. They don’t really see it, or they think [their suffering is] their parents’ fault — they think it’s their parents or their school that’s making their lives miserable.”
The good news is that the rise in teen mental health diagnoses suggests that people are learning at a younger age to manage their mental health and make sure that self-care is a top priority. Unsurprisingly to many of us, one way that teens can be proactive about psychological wellness is to be mindful of time spent online.
“We’re absolutely seeing evidence that the devices that are so prevalent in our world at this point are having an effect on our kids,” says Dr. Emanuele. “There have recently been a number of studies that have come out that show a correlation between the number of hours spent on smartphones or the internet, and higher levels of depression, loneliness, and dissatisfaction.”
In fact, according to one recent study, teens that spend more than five hours online a day are 71 percent more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for teens to reconnect with the world around them and break from their devices. Dr. Emanuele says that temperance is key — but that it’s not an all or nothing approach.
“One of the things we know is that being on a screen 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime can be disruptive to sleep,” she explains, adding that sleep is essential for good mental health. “What you may decide to do is find ways to decrease access — so, maybe no phone in the room after a certain time. Another rule may be no phones at the dinner table: we’re spending 20 minutes talking to one another.”
While some families are quite good at breaking the cycle of smartphone dependence, parents can often be just as addicted as their kids. So, like any addiction, it’s important to start small.
“You don’t wanna make big, grand changes, you want small, incremental changes one at a time that get the point across,” Dr Emanuele says. “And don’t do them all at once, [do them] one at a time, let it sink in, then make another change.”
And while the first step is the scariest, teens who take time to self-reflect and make small changes will, by and large, be better off in the long run, regardless of what barriers may or may not exist for them in their pursuit of support and treatment. Dr. Emanuele hopes that a shift in attitudes toward mental health support will encourage even more teens — and adults — to reach out for help when they need it.
“Something in our culture has to shift where seeking help is actually rewarded instead of punished,” she says. “If they can read it, just basically “I am happy/I am not happy’ and that if ‘I’m happy’ more of the time than not… I would say that’s one way to start.”
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