Editor’s note: Dr Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is Chief Medical Officer at BeMe Health and on faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
In a world that can often seem divided, it’s easy to lose sight of one thing that all adults have in common: we were all children. Our caregivers and educators have played a vital role in our mental health, our worldview and our ability to navigate the ups and downs of life.
According to the United Nations, approximately 1 in 4 people worldwide will suffer from a mental health problem during their lifetime.
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I believe that if every school and every family invested in creating guidelines on how to support a young person’s mental health – particularly during their formative teenage years – more children would have the skills and support they need to thrive. adulthood. Here is what should be in this playbook:
The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge that it exists. Mental health is no different. Schools and families can make sure children and teens learn about mental health – from awareness of the signs and symptoms of common conditions to advice on how to maintain and improve overall well-being.
By incorporating a formal curriculum on what mental health means and what the conditions are like, schools could exponentially improve children’s knowledge bases on the subject. It would help them identify if they’re having trouble before it’s too late, help friends in need, or even spot and dispel misinformation when they come across it in places they turn to. traditionally, like social media.
Education does not need to start and end with schools. Caregivers can also begin to teach children what they know about mental health, share family histories of mental health issues, and encourage their children to turn to resources where they can learn more.
Young people today are finally growing up in a time when mental health is no longer a taboo. Yet opening up can still be difficult. To create safe spaces for these conversations, we must invite children, whether young or older teenagers, to share what they think and feel without judging, criticizing or invalidating them.
Consider proactive school check-ins every Friday. Or go around the dinner table at home on Tuesdays and ask how everyone is feeling. By integrating mental health into the regular conversation, we send the message that it’s okay to be unwell, that mental health matters, and that we can support each other through what comes our way.
One of the most common questions parents and teenagers ask me is what to do about life’s relentless stressors. And my advice is the same every time: these stressors are not going to stop. So, let’s find out how to deal with the feelings that accompany them and deal with them, one at a time.
Creating a coping toolkit is relatively simple, and the skills themselves work incredibly well in calming the emotional centers of the brain.
I encourage children to make lists of activities that work best to help them feel better when these intense feelings arise – whether it’s listening to music, doing a few jumping jacks, reading a book or distracting themselves with a task like folding a pile of laundry. .
It may take some trial and error to determine which coping skills are the most useful, but once identified, they should be added to this list and reused. These lists are easy to make, both in the classroom and at home, and children should be able to practice their skills in both settings.
Once a child has an identified mental health issue, it can be difficult to know how and where to get help. But a proactive plan can be put in place if a difficult scenario arises where a child needs timely support.
Educators and caregivers need to know when and how to refer children for formal mental health assessment or professional treatment. Parents should know how to request accommodations at school, and schools should consider partnerships with community organizations, businesses and local mental health practices.
Emergency room visits for suicidal behaviors among young people have increased dramatically during the pandemic, highlighting the need for crisis support, especially for adolescents. However, in times of crisis, it can be difficult to know what to do. Proactive home or school safety planning can give children a set of steps to follow if or when times of crisis arise. The plan may include a list of trusted adults, ways to make a safe environment, and common phone numbers for emergency lines, including the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or Crisis Text Line.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing more valuable than asking the kids in your family or class where they’re at, what they need, and what helps them feel supported. If we want to better support young people, we have to spend a lot more time listening and understanding in order to be able to meet their needs, putting aside our preconceptions.
Youth mental health is truly a shared responsibility. If we tackle it together – in classrooms, homes and beyond – we might be surprised at what the next generation looks like.
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