Here’s how you can help a teen suffering with a mental health disorder | Opinion
The statistics are heartbreaking.
According to the World Health Organization, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder. That’s on a global scale. What about here at home in Washington? The story is still bleak.
A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that 15.1% of Washington children between ages 3 and 17 had at some point been diagnosed with anxiety or depression in 2020. That’s higher than the U.S. average, which was 11.8% in 2020.
Behind those numbers are real people, individual children and teens, each struggling and finding their own way through an isolating time. Many may not know how to find help. Youth mental health is a crisis. It is a crisis here in Washington and around the world. But what can we do?
As a pediatrician and parent, I cannot stress enough how critical it is to create a supportive and safe environment for young people. Often stigma prevents teens from talking about or seeking treatment for a mental health condition. But we must talk about mental health, and we must normalize it. If we don’t, our kids can endure a lifetime of trauma, shame and isolation.
For parents and caregivers, knowing where to start to help the teens in their lives can seem daunting. One of the best first steps is to have a conversation, and often kids will confide in a trusted adult. That could be a teacher, neighbor, coach, religious leader or family member. You don’t know when a child or teen will open up and to whom. As adults, we need to be there for those moments by staying connected and creating safe spaces for real conversations. If you are not sure what to say in the moment, that is ok. The most important thing is to listen, thank them for their trust, let them know that they are not alone, and ask how you can help.
After having the conversation, knowing how to find help isn’t always easy. A good place to start is with your pediatrician or primary care provider. They can help provide a safe space for teens to open up about how they are feeling and what’s occurring in their lives. They can also help determine if physical health issues could be linked to mental health concerns or conditions. It is also critical to lay out a path for youth to participate in their treatment plan. Being empowered in their own healthcare helps ensure they engage in their treatment.
Once concerns are shared and a need for counseling is confirmed, the next step is establishing timely care with an appropriate therapist. However, it can be a hard task for families to find a local therapist who is a personality fit with the right clinical expertise or has availability that matches their schedule. These hurdles frequently keep these patients from the mental healthcare that is needed, sometimes leading to emergency care in crisis.
Talking with a therapist is a very individual experience and everyone’s needs are met differently. Being able to talk to someone who understands your background and culture or looks like you is significant. Many people feel that having to educate a therapist on their perspective and lived experience is an added weight that doesn’t feel worth it. This is a very real problem that’s worsened by a lack of options in clinicians. This is where your primary care provider can be extremely helpful as they can provide recommendations and guidance to find a good fit.
Reducing the time between a young person asking for help and getting into treatment, along with broadening provider options, can help break down the barriers to accessing quality care. When a young person finally works up the courage to go forward with therapy, you have to meet them where they’re at or you might lose that moment when they are ready for help.
Integrating mental health services into primary care clinics is one way to help shorten the amount of time it takes to meet with a clinician. With therapists on-site, a pediatrician can promptly connect kids with them in a familiar setting. This collaborative approach can ultimately lead to better overall health outcomes, too, because mental health and physical health are two halves of the whole health of an individual.
Virtual therapy, through a video visit, can open many doors when it comes to access. For many, it’s a faster and more convenient option. Kids don’t have to worry about transportation to and from appointments. They can talk to someone when it works for them and from wherever they are comfortable — whether it’s their bedroom or a friend’s house. It also offers more opportunities to find the right fit, especially for children who can’t easily find a therapist in their area who looks like them or they see as relatable. Sometimes teens specifically want someone outside their community, so they won’t accidentally run into them outside of a session.
There are several community-based organizations in the Tri-Cities that can help provide mental health services. This includes the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Tri-Cities.
Taking that first step to talk about mental health is the most single important one. If a kid in your life says, “I think I need help,” then ask them, “What can I do to help?” Those simple words can make an amazing difference in the life of a teen.
Dr. Josephine Young is the Medical Director for Premera Blue Cross.