Education, awareness keys to compassion

In 2013, President Obama designated May as National Mental Health Awareness Month. While we often think about adults experiencing mental health challenges, many young people are also impacted. Nationally one in five young people will experience a mental illness or mood disorder in 2016. In addition, approximately one-half of chronic mental illness begins before the age of 14 and three-quarters begins by the age of 24.

Even more troubling is that many young people are never given a correct identification about their mental health issues. It is difficult at times for an accurate diagnosis to be made during childhood and adolescence due to many developmental factors.

We encourage you to talk about mental health with your children not just in May, but all year long.

The 2014 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, a survey taken by more than 200,000 youth, found that one in four adolescents in Whatcom County experienced depression in the past 30 days and that one in six had contemplated suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people between 10 and 26 years of age in Washington State, higher than the national average for that age group.

At the Whatcom Prevention Coalition we believe that mental health is too important to talk about just once a year. We encourage you to talk about mental health with your children not just in May, but all year long. Education and awareness are keys to gaining compassion and understanding for those experiencing mental health disorders, especially for our youth.

The Mental Health America website offers tips on how parents can start a conversation about the topic, especially for parents who have observed signs that may indicate a mental health issue.

A start to the conversation could be sharing with your youth in a very kind and compassionate way some of the behaviors that you have observed recently that have changed in his/her life. Some of those changes might be:

▪ They are not spending time with their friends or talking on the phone to them.

▪ They do not seem engaged in schoolwork because their grades have dropped and their homework is incomplete.

▪ They seem to be depressed because they are giving away their clothes and belongings and they are talking about dark subjects like death and dying.

It’s also important that you show support and withhold judgment during the conversation.

Listen. Actively pay attention to what your youth is saying.

Assure your child that having a mental health issue is common. Let them know this does not mean that they can’t get better.

Do be honest and acknowledge your fear. But do not let your fear rule the situation.

Do be your child’s best advocate. Tell your son or daughter that you will do whatever it takes to assist them and you will learn as much as you can about mental health disorders.

Don’t minimize how they are feeling. Let them know that it may feel difficult for them to have this conversation, but tell them you are so grateful that they have shared their feelings.

Don’t let your emotions rule your response. Make sure not to respond to your child in an angry way. And don’t blame yourself. It’s not uncommon for parents to feel guilt.

Don’t tell your child what they should do. Ask them what they want you to do and how you can best help them out.

Don’t argue. If your child gets upset, then sit back and listen, and ask open-ended questions. Repeat back to your child what you believe they have just shared with you to clarify the situation.

For more tips about talking with your child about mental health visit Mental Health America at mentalhealthamerica.net.

Locally you can contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness Whatcom County. You can contact them at 360-671-4950 or namiwhatcom.org or by visiting their office at 1212 Billy Frank Jr. St.

KaSandra Church is coordinator for the Whatcom Prevention Coalition. She can be reached at 360-738-1196 or by e-mail at kasandrachurch@wfcn.org.