How to care for your teen’s mental health
Recognising emotional issues early is the best way to protect your teenager against depression and anxiety.
Parents can sometimes be slow to recognise their child is upset or concerned so it’s helpful to know that, according to a 2013 Mission Australia Youth Survey, the top three issues young people are struggling with are (in order):
- coping with stress
- school and study problems
- body image
The study also found one in four say they often feel sad or very sad. The take-home message? “No matter how busy you are, communicate regularly with your children, asking how their day was, how they’re going and whether anything is bothering them,” says Brett McDermott, a Professor in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and beyondblue board director, the national not-for-profit organisation that specialises in depression and related mental disorders.
Cause for concern
In Australia, one in five women and one in eight men will experience depression in their lifetime, according to beyondblue statistics, but one in 16 young Australians (about 180,000 young people) experiences depression and one in six (around 440,000) experiences anxiety.
“Concerning research shows self-harm involving ‘cutting’ is on the increase,” says McDermott. “And a worrying recent survey by the Telethon Kids Institute found one in 13 young people had thought about suicide in the past 12 months while one in 40 had attempted suicide over the last year.”
Signs your teen is struggling
Signs of depression in kids or teens may be obvious, such as sadness and tears, “or they may include withdrawal, sleep issues, changes in appetite (eating more or less) and a loss of interest in activities that used to bring pleasure”, says McDermott.
“Anxiety can show up as separation issues, chronic stomach aches and headaches, social anxiety and school attendance refusal, as well as discomfort or panic about activities like sleepovers and exams.”
Social media's long reach
“The internet means home is no longer a sanctuary from issues like bullying, which can continue 24/7,” McDermott points out. “Though it’s not physical, cyber-bullying can be just as harmful as physical bullying so it’s critical for parents to know what their children are being exposed to online so they can guide and support them should issues arise.”
If your child suddenly avoids their phone or social media accounts or seems upset after screen time, cyber-bullying may be to blame. “If you suspect a problem, be compassionate and validate the difficulty of your child’s situation or feelings, perhaps by saying, ‘That must be hard’,” he advises.
Seek professional help if your child appears to be chronically tense or teary. Your GP can set up a Mental Health Treatment plan, enabling access to subsidised visits to a counsellor.
“Counselling such as cognitive behavioural therapy can help your child learn to let go of worries and change unhelpful thinking patterns,” says McDermott. “It can also teach techniques such as relaxation to reduce anxiety.”
If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health these organisations can help: