Jeremy Sinclair Answers the Tough Questions About Mental Health & Our Kids
Mental health is a hot topic today. Not only are adults being diagnosed with disorders such as anxiety and depression, kids are commonly receiving these diagnoses as well. Sometimes there is a correlation between a parent’s health conditions and their offspring, giving parents a positive way to help their child through experience. Other times a parent struggles to understand the inner workings of their child’s brain and this leads to conflict and misunderstanding.
There are several theories about the uptick in mental health disorders, especially in adolescence. Some blame technology and social media while others think proper screening and diagnosis has just finally caught up.
Read on to see what Jeremy Sinclair, a school counselor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for Venture Academy K-12 charter school with SJCOE, has to say about mental health and kids.
How prevalent are mental health issues in school-aged children?
It’s important to remember everyone has mental health just as everyone has physical health. Having an issue with mental health can be mild and temporary such as grief, sadness, worry, etc. There is a higher threshold to diagnosable mental illness.
Can feeling different or down cause isolation?
Many young people I work with believe they are the only ones in their circles dealing with a particular issue when I happen to know of others in their very classrooms or even family who are dealing with a similar thing who also feel they are the only ones.
What signs should parents look for that their child may be struggling with a mental disorder?
A note on mental disorders: a mental health professional only diagnoses them. You wouldn’t believe your child has cancer without a doctor’s diagnosis but there are many symptoms that would lead you to be concerned something more may be going on. In the same way there are symptoms to their behavior and emotions that would warrant parents concern and possible further evaluation.
Significant and prolonged changes in their child’s behavior and/or mood is a general indicator that there may be an issue to explore. Signs of mental disorders or mental distress can vary significantly because the disorders themselves present very differently. This makes generalizations difficult. Mental health workers may be experts in mental illness but parents should remember they are experts in their child’s behavior and may be the best source in identifying a problem.
If a parent feels there is a something wrong, either mentally or physically, it is not something to ignore.
How can we teach positive mental health and the importance of self care to kids?
In a word: modeling. Children learn what is acceptable to do and say from what they see us do and say ourselves. Parents must not allow double standards between what they ask of their children but are unwilling to do themselves.
Show children it is ok to talk about how they are feeling by demonstrating it yourself.
What does self care look like for kids in grade school?
Self care comes much more naturally to kids than for adults. Kids need the opportunity to be kids! Play is not only fun time, it is necessary for them. Play with your children and you will find it is not only good for them but for you too. Play is serious business!
In addition, children need healthy routines that include good sleep and eating habits. Spotting the early signs of eating disorders (see here) can make all the difference.
What mental health issues are most prevalent at these ages?
Anxiety and depression have been and continue to be the most common mental health issues children face.
What factors can lend to mental health issues? Are some children more susceptible that others?
Genetic factors and environmental circumstances play a role in the development of mental illness. Most commonly it is an interplay of the two.
If parents suspect a problem, what should they do?
I would always encourage parents to first approach a concern directly with their child, this will model openness and acceptance. It may help confirm or calm the concern.
If parents feel they need to pursue their concern with a professional there are a number of ways to start. An appointment with the child’s pediatrician can be beneficial to rule out medical issues and provide referrals. School counselors and psychologists will have a good network of referrals. Insurance providers will be able to give a list of therapists and psychologists covered in their plan.
It is important to treat a mental health concern just as we would a physical concern. Ask questions and find out as much as we can from our child. If there are still questions and concerns, allow a professional to help. It may be found out there is no cause for concern but if there is then knowing about it will only help address it in better ways.
The Mental Health Stigma
So many kids, and even adults, are afraid to talk about their mental health when they aren’t feeling 100% normal. It becomes a cause of silent pain and suffering, often leading children to mask their feelings of sadness or anger in order to fit in. Pretending to be happy, however, doesn’t lead to actual happiness. In fact, it tends to have the opposite effect.
So why are kids set on portraying themselves as happy? Why does having a diagnosable medical condition lead a child to be outcast? The answer is that our country has a mental health stigma. We treat mental health disorders as something that can be “gotten over,” when in reality these conditions are no different than physical ailments.
So how can you help lift the stigma? Do not judge or put down others for having anxiety, depression, or another mental disorder. Do not make people feel less than or different. Instead, talk openly about mental health. The more “normal” we can make these medical conditions feel, the better off everybody will be.
Model this behavior for your children so they do the same. After all, they are the future. We are obviously making leaps and bounds as a society to be more accepting of others, and driving that in children will only have positive benefits for everybody.