Parents: How to Address Youth Mental Health
Youth, in general, lead challenging lives full of commitments and fast-paced activities. Because of these, there seems to them very little time for self-care. However, it is important to balance out the stressors in their lives. This is where family support is essential.
Parents play a vital role in helping their youth to better structure their lives. It is important for parents to understand their children’s mental health and to identify their emotional needs.
Depression and anxiety are the two most common mental health conditions among youth. According to the Singapore Mental Health Study conducted in 2016, 1 in 16 Singaporeans experience Major Depressive Disorder in their lifetime and 1.6% experience Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
As parents, it is crucial to take note of certain signs and symptoms to watch for in our children and obtain timely help. Mental health conditions are considered medical conditions, and do not simply fade away by themselves, if left untreated.
Depression as a mental condition is a vastly different emotional challenge to just getting depressed. One can get depressed over a situation or somebody’s actions for a short period of time. In contrast, depression is a serious medical condition that can lead to a stage that is life-threatening, if not treated promptly and successfully.
Symptoms of Depression
Common symptoms of depression include sleep disturbance, changes in appetite, low moods, problems with concentration, a loss of interest in one’s usual activities, and feelings of worthlessness. Suicidal thoughts are present in some cases. The symptoms are persistent and last at least two weeks.
Types of Depression
There are three main types of depression:
- Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), in which symptoms last for at least two weeks.
- Dysthymia, in which symptoms last for at least two years.
- Bipolar Disorder, in which there are alternating moods with symptoms of mania and Major Depressive Disorder.
Suffering anxiety is very different to simply being anxious. Temporary anxiety due to a danger or unpleasant experience is a normal emotion that anyone can experience – this helps us avoid danger. However, anxiety disorder is a prolonged medical condition that needs medical treatment. Early diagnosis helps avoid the development of a chronic condition.
Symptoms of Anxiety
There are four areas to consider when identifying symptoms of anxiety disorders. Firstly, there are physical signs, such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, muscle tension and dizziness. Secondly, there are emotional flags, including excessive worry, feeling on edge or panicky, and a sense of helplessness. Thirdly, there are mental symptoms, like negative thoughts and difficulty focusing. Finally, there may be behavioural changes – avoidance of people, tasks or situations, and experiencing troubles with sleep.
This list is not exhaustive, and each person experiences anxiety differently. However, if your child experiences persistent, excessive, and irrational anxiety, it is best to seek medical advice, as well as treatment if necessary.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
There are six types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalised anxiety disorder, which comes with constant worry and fear.
- A specific phobia, having excessive fear of a particular object or situation.
- Social anxiety disorder, with intense fear of being criticised or embarrassed in public.
- Panic disorder, with recurring panic attacks.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder, with unwanted intrusive thoughts.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder, experiencing overwhelming stress from a traumatic event.
Various factors can cause depression or anxiety disorders; often, it is a combination of reasons. There are biological and psychological risk factors. Genetic factors include an imbalance in brain chemistry or hormones, while psychological factors could be stress, childhood experiences, the individual’s personality, or addictions.
That said, family plays a vital role in helping youth to face challenges successfully and to alleviate the adverse effects of stress and anxiety.
What can you do?
Parents who are attentive in daily interactions with their children are often the first to recognise behavioural changes. It is important that when parents observe the abovementioned symptoms, they reach out to their children.
Good listening skills will foster a close relationship with your children, letting them know that you are non-judgemental and understanding. With this approach, children will be more likely to open up to you.
Reaching out to your teenage children can be a daunting task, especially if they are unwilling to speak to you. Hence, providing a safe space for your children to speak is crucial. If they are not comfortable, a third party – such as a close mature family member, a mentor, or a mental health professional – can be helpful.
Parents should spend quality time with their children. Acknowledging their feelings is important in building rapport and demonstrating empathy, allowing youth to feel safe in sharing their emotions and identifying what triggers these feelings.
When approaching your children for a conversation, look for a relaxed space, maintain eye contact, and show concern and interest towards their wellbeing. Asking them open-ended questions such as “how was your day?” can encourage elaboration, compared to close-ended yes or no questions. In this way, parents can help children to gain a deeper understanding of their own concerns. Parents can paraphrase and summarise to show attentiveness and ensure they are truly understanding their children.
When speaking with their children, parents need to stay calm, be supportive and provide positive feedback to avoid invalidating statements. Your teenagers may share something that you might disagree with, but try to withhold judgement and avoid asking too many questions, lest it be overwhelming for your children and they start to close off. If you observe or hear suicidal thoughts, express your concern, share what you observe, encourage support and offer help if needed.
It is common for parents to experience sadness, fear and worry in response to a young person’s mental issues. Parents need to take care of themselves and create their own support network. Local mental health resources include services offered by family doctors, polyclinics, Family Service Centres, school counsellors, private and social service organisations.
This article was contributed by Clarity Singapore, and is written by Sanjeevi Fernando.