Keep Your Teens (and Pre-Teens!) Mentally Healthy
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently found that the suicide rate for children between ages 10 and 14 nearly doubled between 2007 and 2014.
For parents, that’s a pretty scary thing to hear.
Other research from Vanderbilt University’s Children’s Hospital found that between 2007 and 2015, roughly 50 percent of suicidal thoughts or attempts by young people were committed by teens between ages 15 and 17, while another 37 percent were by younger teens/pre-teens who were between ages 12 and 14. The final 13 percent were children aged 5 to 11.
These statistics are both sad and alarming, especially for parents of teens and, evidently now, pre-teens as well.
There are many causes for this recent uptick in the number of teens and pre-teens being hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or actions. Social media has been linked as one such cause, especially as it has opened the doors to increased bullying, in the form of cyberbullying.
Dr. Leah S. Levenson, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice at LSL Psychological Services in Gulfport, and in the Mental Health Clinic at Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, agrees.
“I believe that social media is probably the biggest stressor to a teen’s mental health at this time,” she said. “Because the internet allows for increased anonymity, cyberbullying is an ‘easier’ way to inflict harm and hate upon another person.” This cyberbullying has been known to lead to “significant psychological distress,” she said, which has resulted in teens and pre-teens “going to the extreme and taking their own lives.”
Another stressor that may possibly impact the mental health of teens and pre-teens is substance abuse. Coupled with this problem, though, is the third biggest stressor: peer pressure.
“Teenagers will often change their attitudes, behaviors, and thoughts and beliefs in order to fit in,” Dr. Levenson explained. As a result, they are often coerced into doing, saying, or behaving in ways that impact their overall mental health.
“This dissonance between what they know is right – and what they have been coerced into – often increases the likelihood of mental health concerns.”
How do parents discern, then, between what is normal teenage behavior and what is cause for alarm? There are several important things to look for that might indicate your teen or pre-teen has need to see a mental health professional.
“The key is that there is a change,” cautions Dr. Levenson, particularly a “change in functioning.”
This might include a change in sleeping or eating patterns, a change in his or her mood, increased irritability, decreased pleasure in enjoyable activities, loss of self-esteem, unexpected and/or dramatic decline in academic performance, increased anxiety, or increased thoughts about death or dying.
“Depression is a more serious condition that requires intervention,” she warned.
In addition to the things mentioned above, Dr. Levenson said warning signs might include unintentional weight loss, not wanting to be with friends or family, feelings of restlessness, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, inability to concentrate, and increased indecisiveness.
“Once you have recognized that there is an issue, it is essential to identify that it is probably more than you can tackle alone and to seek out professional help for both your teen and yourself,” she said.
“Take immediate action if your teen makes any statements about wanting to harm himself/herself or others,” she added.
The bright side to all of this heavy news is that there are ways to prevent suicide in young people long before they even step on that path toward a dangerous mental state.
“First and foremost, we need to be aware of suicidal behaviors in teens,” Dr. Levenson said. To do that, though, she says parents and other important adults need to be present and involved in the child’s life so that they can be aware of those changes.
This feeling of support is enhanced by keeping the lines of communication wide open.
“Listening to your teen is huge,” she said, “and listening to not only what comes out of their mouths, but what their behavior and body language indicates as well. Non-verbal behaviors say way more than your teenager will ever say out loud.”
Dr. Levenson says it is equally important to provide a stable and safe home environment for your child. “Promote healthy eating, adequate diet, appropriate sleep habits, exercise, and positive interactions with others.”
It is worth noting that parents should take any threat of suicide seriously.
“Do not ignore or assume that what your teen is saying is either no big deal or just attention-seeking behavior,” Dr. Levenson stressed. “It is better to be safe rather than sorry.”
There are many resources available, provided you know where to look and who to connect with first.
“If you have concerns about your child,” she said, “you can always discuss them with his/her primary care physician.” She also suggests seeking assistance from religious leaders, school counselors, and, of course, local mental health providers (specifically ones who work with children and adolescents).
“If you have concerns about your child, take action,” she said. “There are people all around that can help both you and your child navigate this difficult time.”
If there are serious concerns about safety, Dr. Levenson advises you to call 911 or take your child to the nearest emergency room. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can also be reached by calling (800) 273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours/day, every day.
Tracy D. DeStazio is a freelance writer and editor living in Biloxi. She has been married to her high school sweetheart for 23 years and they have three children, including one teenager and one pre-teen. She tries to take advantage of every opportunity to spend lots of quality time with them…whether they like it or not!