Teens and Mental Health: How to Talk About Getting and Staying Well

The perspective on mental health is changing, and parents have the opportunity to shape a new generation that doesn’t see mental illness as something secret. The thing is that no one is born knowing about mental health, and many adults today didn’t even learn about anxiety or depression until they were caught in the throes of it. 

Mental illness isn’t a foreign concept to teenagers. One in five teens lives with a mental illness. In fact, half of all chronic mental illnesses start by age 14. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 24, and 90-percent of those deaths are linked to an underlying mental illness. 

The truth of the matter is that your teen might already be struggling and you just don’t know. Whether they’re withdrawn and moody, uncontrollable and experimenting, there are ways to reach out and start talking to them about the importance of mental health. 

Know the Warning Signs

Some signs that your teen might have a problem include a sudden loss of interest in interests, socially isolating themselves and slipping grades. They may talk about death or dying or show an interest in dead celebrities or other morbid things. 

Knowing the warning signs will make it easier to take action. You don’t have to view your teen as dysfunctional or incapable. The first step toward helping them get better is acknowledging their struggles without judging them for them or asking for an explanation. 

Learn Before You Speak

Resources like the Say It Out Loud toolkit by the National Alliance on Mental Health help parents have meaningful conversations with their teens. 

Research teen mental illness and understand the way it differs among adolescents and adults. The information you acquire is to help you develop a more understanding approach, not to tell your teen about their own struggles. Remember, the point of the conversation is to find out how they feel and get help together. 

Pick a Good Time

Wait until they are alone and there are no distractions. Pick a time when your child is comfortable and casual. This could be over dinner or when everyone is just relaxing in the living room. Mental illness is important, but it doesn’t have to be a “sit down” talk with lots of pressure. 

When you start the conversation from a natural angle, you help break the stigma that comes along with embarrassment and causes many teens to hide their emotions in the first place. Maybe a conversation where you’re both distracted by an activity makes it more comfortable, such as walking the dog or doing laundry. 

Understand that the conversation might not go how you want to at first. If your teen is in a bad mood or doesn’t want to talk, respect their feelings and let them know you’re here for them when they’re ready. 

Normalize Mental Health

It’s important to let your teen know that they aren’t alone no matter how they’re feeling. Make sure that they realize you’re speaking to them because you care about their well-being. Whatever they’re struggling with, be it anxiety or an eating disorder or any other issue, they aren’t “broken” and don’t need “fixed.” Help is out there to help them get through this tough experience.

Share some of your own struggles with your teen. Ask them if they’ve thought about what might help instead of just offering immediate solutions. When you talk about mental health, it’s important to leave room for silence and let people just feel supported. Consider discussing therapy, group therapy, or even inpatient treatment facilities with your teen as well as their doctor. If your teen knows there is professional help out there for them, it may inspire them to explore some of their options.

Make sure that you emphasize the seriousness of their feelings. Don’t trivialize their emotions by saying everyone is sad or anxious or depressed or that their feelings are just “teen angst.” You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be there, be supportive, and speak from the heart.

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