Teen Mental Health

In Kiddos, Michelle Yetman, PHD. by Lola Magazine

In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, issued a rare public health advisory, warning that American youth were experiencing a mental health crisis that had only been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. He highlighted the alarming rate of increase in suicide attempts among American youth, specifically girls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that emergency room visits for suicide attempts among teen girls were up 50 percent last year, compared to the same time in 2019. 

The increase in addiction and isolation caused by the pandemic, as well as, the struggles and learning loss occurring in schools has created a perfect storm for a mental health crisis. Murthy highlighted a recent survey of American youth in which “1 in 3 high school students and half of the female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” He called the pandemic’s impact on youth mental health “devastating” and after publishing his advisory, testified before Congress so that lawmakers could be aware of the facts. While this information was initially picked up in the press, rising inflation and war in Ukraine soon bumped it from the headlines. Yet, our teens continue to struggle in a way never seen before. 

One of the main points contained within the report was “access to care.” The Surgeon General noted that “on average it takes 11 years from the onset of symptoms before a child begins receiving treatment.” Current guidelines recommend that children begin being screened for anxiety at age 8. Parents are the first people to notice changes in their children, but it is easy to overlook them or not recognize when a child needs help. When it comes to mental health, a wait-and-see approach is not the best plan. We can get so busy running around with after-school activities, tutoring and our own needs that mental health can get overlooked.

How Parents Can Get Help

1. Create rituals of communication and a safe space to talk

We are all very busy with our lives, parents and kids included. It is important, however, to make it a regular habit to stop, touch base and check in with each other, especially emotionally. Whether it is weekly dinner nights or a chat before bed, talk to your teen about what is happening in their world and more importantly, how they feel about it.

2. Make sure your child has downtime

While the elementary school years seem to go on forever, high school passes in the blink of an eye. In four short years, your teen learns how to drive, prepares for college, and gets ready to leave the nest. This is a lot for them to process psychologically. If they are constantly going from club to sporting event to ACT practice, they may never have a moment to catch their breath or think about how they feel and what they genuinely want for their future. Downtime is important to reduce stress and anxiety to prevent burnout.

3. Encourage healthy media habits 

Teens spend a significant amount of time on social media, which can help them stay connected to their friends. Unrealistic social comparison, however, can lead to feelings of depression and eating disorders. Talk with your teen about how they are using social media and what they see. Encourage them to monitor the amount of time they spend on social media. Also, encourage teens not to sleep with their phones in their bedrooms. This may be a struggle, but one teen awake at 2 a.m. tends to text a friend, which starts a cycle of waking up an entire peer group.

4. Prioritize sleep and exercise 

Teens often struggle with sleep deprivation, staying up too late, and being tired during the day. A chronic sleep deficit can negatively affect mood and the ability to deal with stress. Learning how to deal with stress through healthy means, such as exercise, is a habit that will benefit them throughout their lifetime.

5. Try to make your home a judgment-free haven

While parenting involves setting boundaries and limits, at the end of the day, try to see your child for the person they are and love them. Listen to their thoughts and feelings about things, and try to understand their unique perspective. Listen more than you speak. Your role as a parent is not to create a miniature version of yourself, but rather to accept your child for the unique person they are becoming. Try to be understanding and empathetic as you listen to your teen.

6. Pay attention to your own mental health

We are our children’s role models. How we manage stress teaches them how to handle stress. Do we turn to alcohol or medication or numb out in front of the television? Children often become aware of their parents struggling with anxiety or depression even if they do not discuss it.

7. Take advantage of the slower pace in the summer to make sure your entire family is healthy mentally and physically. 

If you have concerns about your child’s mental health, take the first step by having a conversation with your child’s pediatrician. If an evaluation is recommended, seek services from LSU Health Shreveport Children’s Center or the professional of your choosing.

Michelle Yetman, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist

Associate Professor Clinical

Children’s Center at the School of Allied Health Professionals

LSU Health Shreveport