Mental health issues have always been considered to be one of those things that you talked about in whispers. Sufferers may not share that they could be experiencing a mental health issue in fear of being stigmatized, teased, or avoided as being “crazy”. Opening up about mental health struggles has never been easy and unfortunately, many teens hide their symptoms or diagnosis causing more damage than good.
But why? What is it about mental health struggles that causes those who suffer to be unwilling to share and those who do not to avoid the conversation?
When we use the words ‘mental health’, we are talking about how people think, feel, and cope with life. Opening up about thoughts and feelings is just too personal for some people to handle. However, there can be many reasons why opening up about mental health struggles is so difficult.
- Worries that people will make fun of them
- Not wanting to be treated differently
- Worries that parents and friends may not take them seriously
- Concerns that people may think that there is something wrong with them
Mental health issues do not discriminate. There is no one group, age, race, gender, or ethnicity that is more susceptible to mental illness than another. Yet, the stereotypes associate with mental illness have been around for decades and run rampant throughout society. Unfortunately, the term “mental illness” has been used in a derogatory way for so long that it has made the reality about opening up about it that much more challenging and uncomfortable.
People will make excuses for themselves and family members who may be struggling. “John is not feeling well,” or “my mom had a rough day!” Parents may even deflect blame for children’s behaviors onto any other reason other than the truth – mental health struggles! Stress, a change in circumstances, bullying a disruption of sleep patterns, family-related issues, or a change in diet may be excuses that concerned parents give for the behavioral changes that they witness yet are unwilling to admit. Little do they know, mental health issues will not simply go away on their own and if left untreated, may cause irreparable damage.
When a teen experiences mental health issues, some parents may even be in denial. The “not my child” syndrome kicks in and naturally, loving parents will do whatever it takes to defend their teen’s reputation, even if it means denying that they may be struggling because of these stigmas that revolve around the illness.
During difficult times, people tend to shut down more than they open up about their thoughts, concerns, and emotions. Consider how you may be feeling during this time when many people are asked to Shelter-in-Place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How are you feeling? Sad? Lonely? Quarantine exhausted? Previously undetected mental health issues may be triggered by the stress of the circumstances and the uncertainty of the situation. The psychological effects of the loss of freedom, boredom, isolation can have a profound impact on a person’s mental state even for those who may not normally struggle with mental health.
How do people cope? Preserving one’s mental wellness regularly is essential and even more important during a pandemic. For teenagers who are already experiencing the pressures and stress of being a teenager, it may be more challenging and difficult during this time. They are separated from the things that they love, from their friends, social groups, sports, and jobs. Successfully managing these pressures requires more than coping skills.
Although we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic and mental health is a big topic of conversation in the news and with mental health professionals, conversations themselves are not happening. Opening up about and expressing feelings and emotions may be difficult for people during “normal” times let alone when the world is struggling under the pressures of the times.
Opening up and discussing mental health struggles is difficult for adults and young people but critical to not only sharing that there may be an issue but more importantly, to start down the road to recovery. By having a conversation about mental health, you will never know what you may be preventing. As people struggle in silence, their mental illness may send them down the path of self-harm, suicide, and/or hurting others. As world renown CNN Anchor Don Lemon has recently said, “silence is not an option.” Don is referring to the crisis of social imbalance in our country, but aren’t mental health struggles part of this imbalance?
The stereotypes, stigmas, and negativity surrounding mental health place sufferers in the same position as those who experience racial and/or sexual bias and discrimination. Teens who struggle are especially susceptible to feeling the wrath of onlookers, critics, and peers because as we know, teens, in general, can be mean. Their immature brains do not allow them to process what may be going on in another person’s life and how they may be affected. This revolving door of negativity, self-doubt, self-pity, denial, fear, and anxiety only exacerbates their mental health struggles, pushing them deeper into their illness.
Having a conversation about a teen’s mental health struggles could be the difference between life and death. Let’s look at some conversation starters to help your teen to become more comfortable sharing about what they are experiencing so that you can get them the help that they need. If you suspect that your teen is struggling with their mental health, start by asking some questions that will hopefully open the door to action. The trained professionals at Beachside Treatment Center can guide you in the next steps once this door has been opened.
Conversation Starters for Parents
- “I’ve noticed that…” Express your genuine concern for your teen’s mental health struggles by sharing the behaviors that you have noticed such as sleep habits, lack of interest in activities, or moodiness.
- “Let’s take a walk.” When teens are engaged in another activity such as walking, they are distracted and may be more willing to open up about their mental health struggles. They may be more relaxed and comfortable sharing their feelings than if they are sitting on the couch in front of you feeling as if they are being grilled.
- “How are you, really?” For most teens, the word “fine” is a regular part of any type of communication and the most frequent response to any question. “How was school?” Fine. “How are you feeling?” Fine. “How did you do on your test?” Fine. But are they really fine? By expressing true concern, your teen may be more willing to elaborate beyond FINE and open up about those things that they may be struggling with.
Once a teen is ready to open up about their mental health struggles, the door may be ajar but they may not be fully prepared to accept help. They may feel awkward, ashamed, embarrassed, and yet also somewhat relieved. Although you may not understand what is going on or how they have been struggling, there are some keys to engaging with your teen to ensure that you keep the lines of communication open and they continue to share.
Tips for communicating about mental health struggles
- Ask questions. Be prepared to ask questions yet also for your teen to stop offering answers at some point. Some suggestions to keep the conversation moving:
- How long has it been going on?
- Can you describe what you are feeling?
- Did something happen to make you feel this way?
- Be understanding. Your teen may not necessarily have the words to express how they are feeling, know how long it has been going on, or any specific event that caused them to feel this way. You may receive a lot of “I don’t know” responses and shrugged shoulders. If you have not struggled with your mental health, it may be difficult for you to understand but do your best to try.
- Be conscious of your reactions. It may be tempting to tell your teen that “you just have the blues” or “that is a normal part of being a teen”. However, this reaction may relay the message that you do not believe them or that you are unwilling or unable to help. This type of reaction or lack of understanding could close the door of communication again.
- First step. Understand that this first attempt to open up about mental health struggles is just the first of hopefully many conversations. You have gotten the ball rolling but now you as the parent must make the next move. Reach out to your teen’s pediatrician and share the information that you have received. They will schedule an appointment for further conversation and then even a consultation with a mental health professional like those at Beachside Treatment Center.
Remember that opening up about mental health struggles is going to be very difficult for anyone let alone a teenager who already is faced with the challenges of being a teenager. You must keep in mind that not only is your teen struggling with their own thoughts and feelings but they have the added pressure of the stigmas and stereotypes that they fear. Silence is not an option so be as understanding and accepting as you can without falling into the trap of denial, self-pity, or fear. Acknowledging that they are facing mental illness is hard enough. If your teen is being courageous enough to step out and open up about their struggles, you can step to the plate to do all that you can to help them… and get them help at Beachside.