Mental Health in Teens is a Crisis
The rates of mental health issues in teenagers and adolescents are at a crisis point, with the U.S. Surgeon General recently announcing a Surgeon General Advisory about this issue. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot, not only as a psychiatrist, but as a mom to 3 middle school and high school aged daughters. I’m worried.
To be honest, I thought my kids were somehow “safe.”
They are doing well academically, and thriving with friends and their sports. My eldest is currently attending a boarding school in the East Coast, and is busy, but managing her schedule of academics, extracurricular activities, and intense athletic training and competition. Don’t get me wrong - all families are affected by mental illness, including mine. But I thought that with enough support, planning, and help, my children would be able to find success. But what if we were using the wrong definition of success?
More recently, there have been increasing stories in the news about the number of deaths by suicide by student athletes, like this one. These young men and women were in the highs of their academic and athletic careers, and so many times, their deaths were a complete shock to their loved ones.
As a psychiatrist, I firmly believe that physical activity from sports, supportive teammates, and consistent schedules are good things for kids. I also acknowledge the pressure that constant competition, the drive for continuous improvement, and the need to perform can place on young minds.
As a parent, though? I wonder if the intensity is too much. I wonder if I’ve been focusing too much on the last race, their current national ranking, or how they will perform on their next exam. I’m scared that even as a trained mental health professional, I miss the cues or signs that my children are suffering, or doubting themselves, or questioning their value as human beings, and not just as athletes or students.
I don’t know what the right answer is. But I do know that our current systems are failing our kids. Our kids are telling us that with the significantly increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality over the past few years. My own children tell me that our traditional models of care aren’t accessible, the stigma is still real, and our ways of reaching them are outdated.
I feel like I should know better. After all, I’m a trained mental health professional and I have also created entirely new systems of mental health care in large healthcare organizations. And yet I realize that we are not succeeding here. And that’s why I am making small changes, starting at home. These are mine:
- I won’t place value only on performance. Rather than repeatedly asking my kids how their last exam went, or focusing on what they learned in school, I”ll ask them to tell me about their day, and let them decide on what they would like to share. If there’s nothing or I get a one word response, I’ll ask them to share the best part of their day, or something funny that happened. I will be curious about things that are of interest to them, and not just to me.
- Notice my own non-verbal communication. When do I get more animated? Am I more likely to heap on the praise if they share a good test result? Do I engage and stay animated when they share non-academic or non-sport related stories? Do I remain engaged when they are feeling stressed or withdrawn? I have to remember that kids are constantly watching us, and deep down, there is an inherent desire to please us or get attention from us (I know it definitely doesn’t feel that way most of the time!) So if I am only expressive and communicative and praising only when they “perform,” that will set the expectation that their value is based on outcome and performance.
- Meet them where they are - Yes, electronics and social media in excess can be bad for kids, their developing brains, and their mental health. But that doesn’t mean that our kids won’t be on them. And frankly, I’ve gotten tired of berating my kids to get off their phones all day. So I have adopted the policy that “if you can’t beat them, join them in moderation”. I haven’t downloaded Tik Tok yet, but sharing good music, or laughing at funny Instagram reels, or doing dances together for my daughter’s Tik Tok profile? YES. Because the more that we can connect and bond, the more we can share, and open up the opportunities for sharing - the funny, the weird, the good and the bad. And communicating and connecting with my kids is always a good thing.
I’m still figuring out this digital world, especially in the time of this global pandemic, which was a shock and trauma to all of us. And I am literally figuring out the world of parenting teenagers as I type this. However, this is a good reminder to myself that even small changes can help our kids.
Do you have any tips that have helped you connect with or support your teenagers?