As parents, we naturally want our children to be happy. When they become teenagers, however, that can be a lofty goal. A combination of the increased responsibilities and expectations as they get older and hormonal fluctuations can cause teenagers to be, to use a word from their vernacular, “angsty.”
Recently, there has been quite a bit of concern on a state and national level about rising rates of depression in teenagers and preteens. Alaska teens already have one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, and that was before the pandemic cut many teens off from their important social networks – friends and school – which provided important support structures for many.
It’s reasonable, therefore, for parents to keep a close eye on their teens for any warning signs that they are struggling with mental health issues.
So how do you know when your unhappy teenager is struggling with something more than just the normal ups and downs of life?
Many of the symptoms of mental health struggles for teens look a lot like the typical symptoms of a moody teen – feelings of sadness and hopelessness, low energy, withdrawn behavior, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, and problems with concentration or focus. The trick, mental health experts say, is to watch for trends versus one-time events. If symptoms last for longer than a day or two, or reoccur regularly, it may be time to seek help.
The first thing you can do, experts say, is reach out to your teen and talk with them about how they are feeling. This may sound like a no-brainer, but given the sometimes-prickly nature of teens, it’s not surprising some parents don’t want to poke the bear, so to speak. But talking with your teens about how they are feeling, and offering them an outlet to express their feelings is important.
Many teens who are struggling with depression and other mental health problems, say they didn’t know where to turn for help. Alaska has limited resources for anyone with mental health problems, and teens especially, who lack life experience, can fall through the cracks because they may not know how serious their conditions really are. Having someone validate their struggle and offer a hand seeking out therapies and counseling can make a huge difference.
Part of the barrier, perhaps, to having those conversations with our teens are the stigmas and fears surrounding mental health problems. Unlike broken bones or easily diagnosed and understandable ailments, mental health issues fall into a gray area where answers are less than clear-cut. But just like we couldn’t imagine ignoring a teen with a broken leg, we also must face the fact that depression and other mental health struggles are real, and those struggling with them can’t just “snap out of it.”
There are, thankfully, therapies that can help, from counseling to prescription medicines that help balance chemical imbalances that may be at play. A general practitioner doctor should be able to point you in the direction of local resources, and today, telemedicine has broadened counseling and diagnosis options for those living in rural areas. Persistence, however, is key and finding the best answers and treatments may take time.
In the meantime, there is a lot you can do, from helping teens make good choices about healthy habits, like eating balanced meals and getting enough sleep. While those won’t fix many mental health problems, they will help make managing them easier, as anyone who has struggled with drama after a sleepless night or on an empty stomach knows.
Most of all, however, it is important to remain a consistent advocate for your teen, even when that isn’t easy, or they don’t appear to want that help at the time. Just knowing that there is someone in their corner can be a huge comfort, even if they can’t express it at the time.
If you or someone you know are dealing with a mental crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can call the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-HELP or the National Suicide Prevention line at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text National Alliance on Mental Illness to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line anytime. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention and namialaska.org/crisis-resources.