Our teens are in crisis — what can parents do?

There has been an epidemic of anxiety and depression among teens, especially during the pandemic.

When I was a young psychologist in 1977, I specialized in working with teenagers. Perhaps it was because I was something of a wayward youth myself.

Coming of age in New York City in the 1960s was a time of social upheaval — the war in Vietnam, civil rights and drugs. My parents were horrified by my long hair and ripped jeans, having grown up during the Great Depression. My mother’s family was so poor they didn’t have a nickel for the subway. She and my dad worked hard to make sure my brothers and I didn’t go without.

I was a chronic school truant in high school. I wasn’t particularly motivated by grades, and I was bored by most of my classes. Like all teens I thought I was smarter than my parents, who never did find out that I missed so much school. I still managed to get decent grades, mostly because I figured that if I got low grades, they might become suspicious of what I was up to. I wanted to fly under my parents’ radar. Today’s teens don’t seem to worry so much about that. Looking back, I’m sure I could have used some counseling during my adolescence.

As a clinical psychologist who has worked with teenagers for the last 45 years, I’m very concerned about the mental health of adolescents today. In recent years, and particularly during the pandemic, there has been an epidemic of anxiety and depression among teens.

The most recent CDC survey found that nearly 40% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, with 44% reporting that they felt sad or hopeless during the last year. (tinyurl.com/EDH-fam8)

The rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed. This pandemic has created an explosion of mental health crises in both adults and children. Add to this a shortage of child mental health providers, and we have the perfect storm.

Increasingly I get requests to see teens in serious trouble, but like my colleagues, I have very poor access. Many of these teens can’t find child psychiatrists or child mental health providers, even with the help of their primary care providers. It’s heartbreaking.

So, what can parents do?

Be on the lookout for signs of depression or anxiety. Periodic sadness or worry is normal among teenagers. But if parents notice marked behavior changes — problems with sleep, physical complaints, withdrawn behavior, expressions of hopeless that last several weeks, excessive worry, unusual weight loss or weight gain, or fatigue. These can be signs of an emerging mental health problem.

Schedule a visit with your child’s pediatric provider. If you are concerned about your teen’s mental health, schedule a visit with your primary care provider. Pediatric and family practice providers have become adept at diagnosing adolescent mental health problems. Increasingly they’re working side by side with behavioral health specialists, providing what’s called “Collaborative Care.” It’s also becoming more routine for pediatric providers to prescribe medications for anxiety and depression. They are often knowledgeable about local mental health resources.

Take advantage of online mental health resources. During the pandemic there’s been a remarkable growth in virtual mental health services that are provided vis secure video conferencing. It isn’t always ideal for some teens, but many kids have grown used to using this technology with friends and family. Check with your insurance carrier to see what virtual behavioral health services may be covered for your family.

Be persistent. Don’t give up! We want to model to our teens the value of persistence and perseverance when it comes to taking care of ourselves and each other.

Advocate for resources for child mental health services. We need more services and more providers for our kids. It’s helpful to let our legislators know about our concerns. Squeaky wheels get the grease.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.

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