BY LOIS MAHARG
About 1 in 5 teens and young adults has a mental health condition. To address the issue, NAMI has developed a teen-focused mental health awareness program, one version for adults and another, for teens. It’s called Ending the Silence, or ETS.
“We call it that because we want people to become more comfortable talking about mental health conditions,” Sue Treber said, speaking to an audience of 24 adults at the First United Methodist Church of Saline the evening of Oct. 14. She added that comfort talking about mental illness will encourage more people to seek treatment.
“The other thing we want to highlight is the importance of ending the stigma associated with mental health conditions,” said Treber, a trained ETS presenter and member of the congregation. What we know now, Treber continued, is that mental health conditions are disorders of the brain. They’re not unlike disorders affecting other organs.
“They’re just both diseases and nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “Both have better outcomes when you seek treatment.”
About 11% of teens are estimated to have depression, Treber said. Anxiety disorders are also common. Youth at risk for mental illness can be greatly helped by adults familiar with the warning signs. Signs of trouble include extreme sadness, withdrawal, or severe mood changes lasting two weeks or longer. But outward behavior does not always reflect internal struggles.
“There are a lot of people out there who are high functioning who you would never suspect are suffering in some way,” Treber said. “But if they tell you that they are and that they need help, believe them.”
Another potential warning sign is teens being bullied or bullying others. At school, teachers might see a student suddenly missing lots of school, failing to turn in assignments, or writing about feelings of hopelessness. At home, parents might notice a change in a teen’s sleep habits or in how the child is getting along with siblings.
Warning signs of a potential suicide include talking about hopelessness and death, feeling like a burden on others, and losing interest in enjoyable activities. Any expression of suicidal intent calls for an immediate response.
“It might be hardest question you ever have to ask,” Treber said, “but you want to ask the person directly: Are you thinking about suicide? Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
Do not soften the question or worry that bringing the matter up will make the person more likely to follow through with the suicide, Treber said: It won’t. A kind, compassionate inquiry will show the youth you care and encourage them to open up. Stay with them while you contact a mental health professional about what to do next.
To help a child with another mental health condition, reach out by mentioning behaviors that concern you.
“They might not want to talk to you,” Treber said. “It might take you several attempts. . . . But the main thing . . . is just to convey your love and support,” with reassurances such as “you don’t need to be ashamed. There’s treatment that can help you.”
If the child won’t talk to you, suggest that they talk with adult friend or relative. Ask teachers and school staff members if they’re seeing warning signs, too. Then seek professional assistance.
“Start with your pediatrician,” Treber said. “You might want to ask for a referral to a mental health specialist. I would also suggest calling your insurance company to see which mental health professionals are covered by your insurance plan and then visiting some of those therapists. You want to find someone your child will feel comfortable talking to.”
Finally, Treber said, it’s important to partner with teachers as children spend so much time at school. Use the support services available to children with mental health conditions. Together with your child, brainstorm accommodations that might help, such as moving the child to avoid contact with another student, allowing the child to leave the classroom for a quieter place, or seeing if there’s flexibility in test taking and/or deadlines for homework.
All ETS presentations include teens and/or family members sharing personal stories about how mental illness has touched their lives. After Treber’s presentation, NAMI volunteers Jennifer Williams and Alison Paine talked about their children’s struggle with mental illness and how they eventually found help. The presenters then took questions from the audience.
Free of charge, NAMI Washtenaw conducts ETS presentations for teens and adults at schools, churches, workplaces, and special events. To request a presentation or become a volunteer presenter, contact the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-994-6611.