This past year and a half, our collective mental health took on a whole new set of challenges. In just a few short days, the institutions that gave our days structure shut down.
The pandemic changed the way we all interacted with each other, and it had a profound effect on our mental health. So, now is an excellent time to ask, “What is mental health, and why is it so important for our adolescents and young adults?”
Our Children Need Us to Protect Their Mental Health
According to the Centers for Disease Control,
“Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”
Mental health is not only crucial for enjoying our present experiences but for creating our future. When kids learn to ask for what they need emotionally and mentally and have these needs met, they learn the skills to be healthy adults in the future.
The pandemic made it easier – and harder – to look after teen’s mental health
Many families found that they noticed behaviors they hadn’t previously, because they were together with such consistency.
For example, parents might have noticed that their kids were sleeping more, eating less, or became tense and frustrated easily in new situations. They noticed emotional breakdowns that were outside of the norm. They saw alcohol missing, or they were home to smell smoke coming from their teen’s bedroom.
Being a typical teen has gotten harder
Teens are hard-wired for social interaction and emotional stimulation, according to the New York Academy of Sciences. This past year and a half, it’s been challenging for them to meet those needs because online classrooms don’t facilitate these opportunities.
Due to the pandemic, some people ended up prioritizing their physical well-being over their mental well-being. We embraced isolation even though it’s not good for people – especially not teens.
“Part of who we are is based on our relational capacities – the social relationships that we have,” says Mark White, MA, LPC, LMHC, MAC, executive clinical director of Embark’s Dragonfly Transitions program. “The more in-person interactions people can have, the better.”
“And that was something that pre-dates COVID. So, many of our young adults at Dragonfly have spent inordinate amounts of time by themselves, in front of a screen. We knew that pre-COVID, and COVID just applied a blast furnace to that dynamic,” he said.
So, what can parents do?
“I think it’s important for people to be really intentional about planning in-person social activities as it makes sense with everyone’s local and regional health situations.”Mark White, Executive Director, Dragonfly Transitions
You Think Your Teen is Struggling, What Do You Do?
When you see your teen may be having mental health issues, the first thing to do, according to the CDC, is talk with them. Here’s how to make your approach less of a potential conflict:
- Prepare for the discussion. Look up reputable sources on how to talk with teens about anxiety and depression to inform what you’re going to say.
- Find a good time to talk (the middle of a stressful situation isn’t ideal). As much as possible, create a supportive environment. A quiet location without distractions will help you actively listen. Be sure to put away cell phones and other screens.
- Use “I” statements to explain your concerns. For example, “I have been concerned about how long you’ve been sleeping,” is less blaming than, “You’ve been sleeping all day.”
There still could be tension and conflict. But, it’s essential to start the conversation and allow your teen to come back to it.
When your teen asks for help first, keep these things in mind:
- Stay calm and listen carefully to what your teen is saying.
- Understand that asking for help and trying to talk about it is difficult.
- Validate what they’re saying. Don’t explain it away. Restate what they’re saying so you can be sure you understand. If it’s not quite right, this allows your teen to clarify.
- Take breaks. You don’t have to solve this issue in a single discussion. If things are feeling emotional, agree to take a break and come back.
What Mental Health Awareness Really Means in 2021
In the current world we are living in, there are still a lot of unknowns. As we return to school, the workplace, and activities, new challenges will arise.
If your teen is struggling with anxiety or depression, White reminds us, “In some ways, COVID gave the green light to isolating behavior.” As a result, it might be tough returning back to more social situations.
Some resources aren’t going to be available right away, and others will be different than before. Even things that return to normal might feel different.
So continue to keep an eye on your teen. Prioritize their well-being.
“If you see changes from your teen’s baseline that aren’t just a one-off – spending more time by themselves, talking less, eating less, disengaging from enjoyable activities – then seek help,” White said. “Some of that might be developmental and completely appropriate, but it gives the parent the green light to discuss things with their kid.
“Get help, trust your gut, get that counseling appointment. Outcomes are going to be way better the sooner we get care.”