Why We Need to Talk About Mental Health
At Signet, one of our core values is “Teach Students, Not Subjects.” We strive to address our students as whole people with a lot going on in their lives, not just as students who need to learn a specific concept. That’s why we want to spend some time talking about mental health. Good mental health supports everything students do academically, while poor mental health can undermine everything, even for the brightest and most ambitious students.
Very often, parents will approach Signet with challenges that they believe are due to a lack of motivation or effort, or are someone’s fault (a teacher, etc.) and can be “fixed” with tutoring or coaching. But often, these challenges actually have to do with underlying mental health issues, and those students need help from professionals in that field.
Mental health awareness is low throughout society, though that’s starting to change. In this blog post, co-written by a member of our team who’s a trained and certified counselor, we want to give you a brief introduction to some of the most common mental health challenges your student might be facing.
This isn’t a diagnostic tool, but rather something for you to use to educate yourself. If you do find that something in here resonates with your experience, please don’t ignore it. Consider talking to a doctor or trained mental health professional.
Three of the most common mental health issues faced by adolescents in the U.S. these days are depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Each has its own challenges, but also plenty of resources, support, and treatment options. Here’s a quick overview:
Depression is a mood disorder characterized by a persistent, multi-week low feeling accompanied by a loss of interest in most things (DSM-5). People with diagnosed depression often feel hopeless, guilty, or sad, have a reduced appetite, and/or require greater effort than usual to move through their daily life. Diagnoses of depression have increased in recent years, particularly in girls. “Girls mature, in terms of their emotional recognition, faster than boys—and that sensitivity could make them more vulnerable to depression and anxiety,” according to Dr. Ron Steingard at the Child Mind Institute.
In adolescents, depression can look very different in different people. Some common areas to keep an eye on are diet, sleep, and relationships. Is your child eating less? Is he sleeping more, or seeming more lethargic? Is she expressing hopelessness or feeling overwhelmed by social dynamics at school? Has he stopped trying to connect with new people, or work disagreements out with friends? Has her outlook on school changed? Are his grades declining? Has she shifted from active engagement to withdrawal from activities? Answering ‘yes’ to most or all of these is by no means a diagnosis, but it might mean it’s time to seek guidance.
That being said, the ups and downs of normal adolescence can sometimes look like depression, especially in girls. So it’s important to remember that diagnosable depression is pervasive and multi-week. If you are worried or in doubt, make an appointment with your child’s primary care provider (PCP) as a first step. Signs and symptoms your PCP will ask about and you should be prepared to discuss include reduced appetite, changes in sleep, change in normal activities, grades and schoolwork completion, irritability, and alcohol or drug experimentation.
Diagnosable anxiety can also look very different in different people, but is most basically characterized as several months of persistent worry and anxiety. It can include somatic symptoms (biting nail, pulling hair, stomachaches, not eating), avoidance of social situations, and an uncontrollable worry about how they’re “measuring up” against others (DSM-5).
“Why are our children so anxious and getting more so?” asks therapist Lynn Lyons, an expert in anxiety in children and adolescents. She posits that we inadvertently harm anxious kids by shielding them from uncomfortable moments, which lets what was normal childhood “nervousness” turn into a full-blown anxiety disorder. While this is a simple explanation for a complicated issue, it likely holds some truth.
Anxiety in adolescents often looks like perfectionism, but can also include withdrawal and avoidance. The underlying feeling is often a fear of failure, and that’s the part you can listen for in your child. Is your child obsessively studying for her math test because she’s so curious about algorithms, or because she doesn’t want to disappoint you? Is he not eating breakfast because he’s running out of time, or because he’s so worried about looking dumb in first period every day that his worry has suppressed his appetite? Does she fall apart if you change something in her daily or weekly routine? If he’s nervous about something happening at school that day, will he try to avoid going to school? Does it take her a long time to fall asleep?
These are the kinds of worries that an adolescent with anxiety might have. All of them can be normal to a certain extent, but sometimes these worries build into a true anxiety that doesn’t fade away. If you notice your child perseverating on worries, not sleeping, or beginning to avoid things due to worry, make an appointment with their PCP as your first step.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is “marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development,” according to NIMH. At least 5% of U.S. children (8-17) carry the diagnosis. However, as children age, anxiety and depression often emerge alongside ADHD, or can even be masked by it, according to Dr. Frank Lawlis. If your child has previously been diagnosed with ADHD, it’s a good idea to do a full mental health reassessment as they enter adolescence to ensure that you are treating the right condition.
If you’re wondering whether your child has ADHD, your first step should be to compare notes on your child’s behavior with their teachers. ADHD persists across different environments, so you’ll want to find out if your child exhibits the same behaviors at home and school. The most common behaviors that we see are struggles with executive function. Is it difficult for your child to sustain a task that she’s not interested in? Does he get distracted both when working on a worksheet at school and while doing a boring task at home? Does your child get antsy or forget the routine every time she transitions from one class to the next? Have you tried schedules and routines at home, but he pays no attention to them? Does she find something that catches her attention and lose all sense of time? Is it hard for him to plan a project by breaking it down? Is she fidgety? Does he get in trouble for not following directions often at school? These are the sorts of behaviors that can often indicate ADHD. Comparing across settings is your first step, but be sure to talk to your PCP first, as they will give you a checklist to use in your comparison.
When in doubt about any mental health issue, your child’s PCP should always be your first option. Share your observations and take their advice.