Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

How parents can help promote mental health

Parenting a "moody teen"?

Parenting will always involve a balance of vigilance and letting go, but when a child's mental health is at stake, it can be harder for parents to know when and how to step in.

Often, parents don't realize their child is depressed until there is a crisis. A father featured in last week's Wall Street Journal article about teens and depression said that it took a suicide attempt to start getting his daughter the help she needed. But, after the hospitalization, the father said he expected his daughter's problems to be solved. "We had no idea that was just the beginning."

A survived suicide attempt can open an opportunity for intervention with a teen. But, as I hope is obvious, moving upstream to preventing that attempt is just as critical.

So, I see two questions for parents to consider when thinking about teens, depression, and suicide prevention:

1) What are the signs that you need to be looking for to know if your teen is depressed?

2) How can you raise a resilient child who bounces back from the challenges of being a teenager?

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To begin to help with the first question, the Wall Street Journal offered some guidance with a list of signs of depression to help parents distinguish it from teenage moodiness:

  • Sleep: Is your teen sleeping too little or too much, or having trouble falling or staying asleep?
  • Interest: Is your teen less interested in activities he or she used to enjoy?
  • Guilt: Does your teen have excessive guilt, or feel worthless or devalued?
  • Energy: Is your teen unusually tired, exhausted, or low-energy?
  • Concentration: Is your teen having trouble thinking, concentrating, or making decisions?
  • Appetite: Has your teen's appetite changed?
  • Psychomotor Skills: Is your teen moving around faster or slower than normal - is he or she more sluggish or restless or jittery?
  • Suicide: Is your teen thinking about death?

(Just as a note, these signs are relevant for adults, too.)

If a parent notices changes in their teen, finding an appropriate medical or mental health practitioner who can help provide support is the first step. A pediatrician who has a good relationship with the teen could help, if adequately equipped to deal with emotional health as well as physical well-being. A counselor at school or in the community, or a psychiatrist who specializes in working with children or teens are other good options. Most important is finding someone who your teen trusts and can be open with about his or her feelings and experiences. A NAMI parents' group may be able to help identify providers in the community who are particularly good at working with teens.

As for the second question, building resilience is a process, matched with the developmental stage of a young person. A parent should be attuned to ways that a child can to grow in self-confidence throughout growing up; what's essential for a 5-year-old to have in place is very different from what a 15-year-old needs. Families, schools, and communities affect children's resilience, and obviously, all factors cannot be controlled. But, that doesn't leave parents exempt from seeking opportunities for their children that allow them to build their competence and confidence.

All that said, a young person struggling with mental health issues is going to need additional support - both professional and parental - to develop into a healthy adult. No list of signs or steps is going to solve all of anyone's problems; it's just not that simple. Knowing what a child needs and working tirelessly to get it for them - that's one of the best things a parent can do to promote mental health.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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