For teens who struggle with mental health issues, the regular routine of going to school Monday through Friday at least gives them a schedule. Most days, they know what to expect. But when summer rolls around, and the schedule and routine disappear, symptoms of mental health disorders can intensify and become more frequent.
Having too much time on their hands during the summer can be disastrous for teens with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, or obsessive compulsive disorder. Each of these conditions have, at their root, a need for structure and control. When teens lose the structure of the school year, chaos can emerge.
So, how do you get extra mental health help in the summer? There are certainly multiple options for each one of these disorders. But, not every option is going to work for every disorder. If your teen has anxiety, he or she would not respond to options that would be optimal for a teen with an eating disorder. While these mental health issues do overlap in some ways, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a one-size fits all program that can help all children with mental health issues.
Let’s review options for each of these mental health conditions and find out where the overlap exists and how teens with different disorders might be able to help each other by being a support system.
Teens with anxiety disorders have an inflated sense of worry and fear about any number of things, people, or situations. Now, everyone has some natural anxieties, but those with anxiety disorders suffer from panic attacks, anxiety attacks, or appear overly worried about the small stuff.
For example, a teen with a fear of crowds (people the teen doesn’t know) is not likely to want to go to a sporting event, pool party, camp, amusement park, or concert – which a lot of teens do during the summer months. These types of venues bring out irrational fears, like being taken captive, being robbed, being killed, or any one of a dozen other fears. If your teen is missing out on these types of activities because of anxiety, ask your teen what it would take to make him or her feel safe at one of these events.
A teen who really doesn’t want to miss out on these great summer fun times might ask a parent to go with him or her, ask if a group of friends can go, see if a personal aide would be available, or see if there is a medication the teen can take short-term to help him or her make it through the event with the chance to actually enjoy it.
It is also critical to make certain your teen continues therapy throughout the summer for their anxiety. In fact, that might be the best time to increase therapy visits. If the end of the school year was particularly stressful, the first few weeks of summer may be a good time to get in some extra therapy sessions to help your teen release some stress and anxiety that may have built up over the end of the semester.
Summer-time is the one of the most dangerous times for teens with depression. They are often left alone all day, they may have to take on extra responsibilities they don’t want (like taking care of younger siblings), or they may not have any friends nearby to spend time with. Summer can be a very isolating time for teens with depression.
Teens suffering from depression often have few friends that they engage with on a regular basis. As a result of limited interest in parties or get-togethers, they have few people to call, and the intense loneliness that results can lead to suicidal ideation (having suicidal thoughts). It is critical that parents of teens with depression are aware of how the teen’s mental health is doing during those summer months.
One strategy can be for the teen to have a part-time job. While some teens are not old enough to work yet (the minimum age in most states is 15), those who are can use the opportunity to not only make some money (fueling a positive sense of accomplishment and independence) but also to meet new people and interact with others on a daily basis – the teen may even make a few new friends!
Another summer option for teens with depression is to sign them up for clubs or groups that interest them. There are all kinds of summer recreational sports leagues, art groups, singing groups, book clubs, or drama clubs that meet nearly every day during the summer. This is an opportunity for your depressed teen to explore new activities they may have been afraid to try before or give them the chance to improve their skills in a sport, so they have a chance to try out for a school team in the fall.
The critical factor in the summer for teens with depression is that they not be left alone. Isolation is one of the most debilitating environments for those with depression. The mental health of your teen with depression is best treated with activity and exposure to others. And, of course, like with any other mental health issue, monitor your teen’s medication and make sure he or she continues to go to therapy.
Teens with bipolar disorder benefit greatly from structured routines. It lessens the opportunity for triggers and helps teens maintain their medication schedule. When summer arrives, teens whose parents both work are left to monitor their medications and keep track of their symptoms – something they may not be used to doing.
Enrolling your bipolar teen in summer activities is essential. A strict routine of getting up at the same time every day, taking medications at the same time every day, going to bed at the same time every day – all of these are crucial to keeping balance for a teen with bipolar disorder.
If your bipolar kid is an athlete, find a summer program that starts and ends at the same time every day. If you can’t find the right fit, start a teen group at your house (adult supervision required) that starts and ends at the same time every day. Make certain your teen is eating 3 to 4 meals a day, around the same time, every day. Just like teens with depression, teens with bipolar disorder need structure.
One way you can get your teen involved in his or her own care is to have them help you set up a summer calendar once school has ended. Give the teen a daily schedule for medication and have him or her set an alarm on a smartphone as a reminder to take meds. Work together to determine what a good time is to get up in the morning and go to bed at night. Keep that schedule as closely as possible.
If your bipolar teen decides to participate in a summer recreation program, create a calendar with daily meetings, practices, or other events related to the program and post it on your refrigerator or on the teen’s bathroom mirror – someplace your teen will look every day. Also, make certain that therapy appointments are scheduled for the same day and time each week during the summer.
Eating Disorder – Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or Compulsive Overeating
Summertime is when a lot of kids either lose or gain weight. Teens with an eating disorder are especially prone to weight change during the summer months. During the school year, there are plenty of adults around every day to monitor a teen’s eating habits and keep track of any medications a teen might be on.
If you are the parent of a teen with an eating disorder, you will need to ensure that your teen isn’t left along for extended periods of time. Anorexics can take unsupervised time and use it to over exercise or avoid eating when they should. Bulimics can use unsupervised time to binge and purge way more than they usually do. Overeaters with unsupervised time can binge eat all day long. In any of these three cases, having alone time is not good for the mental health and physical health of teens with eating disorders.
Summertime is a great opportunity to get your teen with an eating disorder some extra counseling or even short-term outpatient rehab. It won’t interfere with school, but the teen will get extra help he or she doesn’t have time for during the school year. Unlike other mental health issues teens deal with, eating disorders are an immediate, life-threatening danger. While a teen with depression may start having thoughts of self-harm, it takes time for suicidal ideation to take hold, it takes time to make a plan, and it takes time to bring a plan to fruition.
Teens with eating disorders can find themselves hospitalized after just a few days of inappropriate eating behavior. For example, teens recovering from anorexia can become dehydrated and malnourished very quickly, requiring a hospital stay to rehydrate and get further counseling on proper eating habits.
Supervision, extra counseling, and structure are key elements to keeping your eating disordered teen safe during the summer months.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Teens with obsessive compulsive disorder have one of the more difficult mental health issues to deal with. Anxiety of everyday living causes them to behave in peculiar ways sometimes. Teens with perfectionism will often not leave their room until absolutely everything is in its proper place – and it takes extra time to ensure this.
Teens with germaphobia will spend excess amounts of time cleaning or washing themselves. This opportunity is limited during the school day. Teens with symmetry OCD cannot handle when things are not in a straight line, in odd numbers, or otherwise appear non-symmetrical. These symptoms will simply increase when the teen is left to his or her own devices all day long.
As with eating disorders, summer is an opportunity for additional therapy or in-patient treatment as needed for teens with OCD. OCD manifests as a way to handle anxiety that the teen feels. OCD patients are overwhelmed by disorder and chaos in their lives. Their need to control their environment is what leads to OCD behaviors like excessive cleaning, putting things in certain order, labeling everything in the house, and organizing all the cabinets, cupboards, closets, and shelves in the house.
While this doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, the disorder is that they can’t stop behaving this way. They will clean like crazy every day. They will re-organize, re-label, or re-align things every day. If they are germaphobes, they will shower often, wash their hands continuously, or otherwise decontaminate their surroundings every day. They are acting out of uncontrollable fear and worry.
For some teens with mental health issues, summer is a time to try new things, make new friends, or join new groups. For others, it can be a time of increased worry and anxiety. Isolation, free time, and lack of a routine are dangerous parts of the summer months for teens with mental health issues.
It is important that parents of teens with mental health issues plan ahead for the summer months. Make sure you have a plan for your teen’s care and supervision, as well as ideas for keeping your teen occupied. Schedule extra therapy appointments and find out if there is an in-patient program available just in case.
If you’re in the Southern California area, you have options for getting your teen the mental health treatment that they need as summer comes to a close. Reach out to Beachside to find out how our facility can help your family today!