By BRANDON ENOS
Cushing Independent School District
In the United States, talking about mental health issues and mental illness remains taboo and can often lead to a negative stigma for the person needing help. Adolescents are much more prone to internalize what others think about them, which leads many teenagers to keep mental illness concerns to themselves. The month of May is dedicated to mental health awareness, making now an ideal time to discuss mental health concerns in teens. The isolation faced during the COVID pandemic exacerbated the mental health problem. According to a 2021 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, 37% of adolescents felt regular or constant anxiety or depression during the pandemic. There are common factors that negatively impact a juvenile’s mental health, resources available and signs to look for to help a teenager successfully navigate their mental health issues.
Factors that negatively impact a teen’s mental health
Each person is different; however, some common trends are impacting the mental health of adolescents. By the time I see students in need, they are usually in full-blown crisis and have several of the following precipitating factors contributing to their mental health crisis. A few of these factors are:
- Low Self-Esteem – how a child views himself is one of the most common issues I see in schools. If unable to have a good self-image, the child will usually gain their self-image from how others treat him.
- Academic Stress – some teenagers get overwhelmed by the rigors of school. Oftentimes, I hear from a child that his or her parents require perfection. This is usually not true, but the adolescent feels this way and internalizes the pressures of being perfect.
- Neglect or Abuse – when a person is abused or neglected, it causes long-lasting mental health issues in all aspects of their life.
- Loneliness – teenagers are naturally social and will usually choose to be with others who share the same interests as them. When isolated, they get lonely, and this leads to depression.
- Physical Health Condition – some of the most severe depression I have seen in adolescents came from students who had long-lasting or permanent physical health conditions. These students want to be the same as their peers who can walk, run, hear, see or participate in a myriad of other activities typical of a teenager.
- Poverty – taking on the burdens of adulthood while still a child is difficult. Poverty within a family can often cause a teenager to miss out on activities and opportunities available to their peers from more affluent households.
Resources available to help a teenager with mental illness concerns
There are several avenues of support available to an adolescent who is suffering from mental illness. The list I am offering is not complete, and each parent should do what is best for their child.
- School Counselor – the local counselor is a fantastic resource and will often be able to help parents determine the severity of the mental illness and can usually recommend treatment providers to the parent.
- Clergy or church elder – on many occasions I have seen church leaders, usually youth ministers, support a teenager through a crisis successfully. This resource is usually more beneficial if a relationship was built before the mental illness is evident.
- Psychotherapy – this is the most common treatment I see offered. Psychotherapy can be as simple as occasional therapy or as extravagant as an inpatient hospital. The level of treatment should be determined by the child’s needs.
- Peer support – we all need friends. Adolescents who are struggling with mental illness can often find great relief in sharing their feelings with a close friend.
Signs that a teenager needs help
Just as with factors that impact mental health and useful resources, signs that a teenager is having a mental health crisis vary depending on the person. There are some common signs I have witnessed that may help you notice a child in need. Parents should remember that individually the below listed signs may not be alarming, but if more than one is present, it may be time to discuss mental health care. These are:
- Isolation – when someone separates themselves from their friends, they may be upset about how they are being treated or confused about their role within the group.
- Cutting – unfortunately, this is common. If a child wears long clothes often, they may be hiding their arms, legs or stomach area. This is much more easily hidden in the winter months.
- Drug or alcohol use – many of the students in crisis attempt to change how they feel by starting to use or increasing the use of alcohol and/or drugs.
- Dropping grades – a drop in grades is regularly associated with a student who is struggling with mental health issues.
- Irritable or severe mood swings – since mood swings and irritability are common in teenagers, I would add this as a sign of mental illness if other signs present themselves.
Parents should discuss mental health with their teenagers and seek help when needed. Parents can start a daily conversation by asking their child for one highlight and one low point and then asking follow-up questions. If the teenager is unwilling to share, the parent should demonstrate by sharing the good and bad of his or her day. Eventually, the teen will want to participate and will talk about what went well and not so well in their day.
Since being isolated during the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression among adolescents. There are many contributing factors and various ways to treat a person in need; however, ignoring the mental illness, depression or anxiety and hoping it will go away without addressing the elephant in the room is not a viable or responsible solution. As a society, we must stop the negativity and stigmatization that surrounds mental health treatment so that those who need help ask for it instead of hiding their problems in shame.
Dr. Brandon Enos has been the superintendent of Cushing ISD since January of 2022 and is a strong advocate for Texas public school students and teachers.