May is National Mental Health Awareness month, and what an important time it is to promote positive mental health for teens.
Unarguably, we are all experiencing dramatic changes in one form or another without discrimination of race, gender, socio-economic status or age. In a time where there seems to be many forces working against us, maintaining positive mental health can be a daunting challenge.
Last year, researchers found that 1 in 4 children in Maine have at least one mental health disorder, like depression, anxiety, or ADHD, higher than the national average of 1 in 6. We know that the loss of significant relationships, feeling powerless/hopeless, social isolation, loss of freedom and high levels of stress are all risk factors for engaging in substance use, and are also feelings all youth are experiencing.
During difficult times, youth may seek ways to self-medicate as a short-term coping method of dealing with anxiety, hopeless and negative thoughts. Because the brain is still developing, substance use during these years can lead to problematic outcomes in adulthood like difficulty holding back or controlling emotions, poor planning and judgment, such as rarely thinking of negative consequences and more risky, impulsive behaviors.
However, there are action steps parents and caregivers can take to help children and adolescents maintain positive mental health and further protect them from engaging in substance use.
Hear Them Out & Continue To Be a Positive Role Model
Empathy has a powerful impact. By acknowledging losses of important milestones, it gives teens the opportunity to feel heard and their feelings validated. Help teens identify what they might be feeling – the “name it to tame it” technique proves that when we label emotions, we are better able to integrate and process them in a healthy way. Teens may also be experiencing stages of grief. Parents may be unable to guide them directly into accepting losses and changes, but they can still practice positive role modeling by accepting their own feelings.
Create Goals & Improve Critical Thinking Skills
Teens may feel that it’s useless to plan anything in this rapidly evolving landscape, but by helping them shift from focusing on their losses to identifying new goals it may help them to refocus on future more positive experiences. Many resources call for loosening electronic device and social media restrictions during this time, which may sound scary given the information overload we are all currently experiencing. Turn this opportunity into a teachable moment by showing youth how to find creditable information from trusted resources like WHO or the CDC. All youth can learn how to distinguish fact from false information, and what important data means to them.
Help Them Find a New Sense of Purpose
Typical routines have significantly changed and can result in high levels of anxiety and stress. Work with your child or teen to find out how they can play a bigger role, like cooking dinner for the family, helping a younger sibling with remote learning, or engaging with family through new and fun ways. There also may be local opportunities for youth to help their communities (following social distancing & regulations). Acts of kindness can improve their own mental health – even if it’s through a phone call, text, or social media.
Resources for Parents & Caregivers
State of Maine, Behavioral Health Resources
Online Support Groups, LGBTQ+ Youth, MaineTransNet, Portland Outright