Oftentimes, when children or adults see news stories, TV shows or movies about mental illness, it can contribute to a negative stigma or give an inaccurate picture about what mental health is.
In reality, one in five children will experience some type of mental health problem – and overcoming stigma and false perceptions is key to helping children receive the support they need. Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., a Children's Health℠ clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, offers clarity around some common myths surrounding mental health in children and adolescents.
Is sadness or depression a sign of weakness?
Showing signs of sadness or depression is often misinterpreted as a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of, particularly among young men. Similarly, many people mistakenly believe that seeking treatment, such as counseling or therapy, is a sign of weakness. "On the contrary," Dr. Westers says, "going to see a therapist or psychologist is like going to see your primary care physician. It's a normal and healthy thing to do."
Children often base their own assumptions about mental health on their parents' assumptions. Parents can help destigmatize mental health treatment and therapy by using normalizing language about the experience. To illustrate, Dr. Westers suggests, "Just like parents would describe a dentist as a doctor for teeth, or an optometrist as a doctor for eyes, parents can describe a psychologist as a doctor for feelings."
You should recognize that even if your child is not telling you about their emotions, that does not mean they do not experience them. You can model healthy behaviors by talking to your child about your own emotions and what you do to feel better. If your child is showing signs of depression, talk to them about what they feel and why they feel that way. Many times they won't know why they are feeling what they feel, and that is okay; there doesn't have to be an identifiable reason. Explain that it is okay to feel sad and stressed, and they shouldn't feel embarrassed to ask for help.
"An empathic and validating stance from a parent could be the difference between a child suffering alone and seeking help if they experience depression now or in the future," Dr. Westers says.
What is normal emotion vs. a sign of a mental health disorder?
Sometimes, it can be difficult to differentiate between sadness and depression, or mood swings and conditions like bipolar disorder. "As we work toward destigmatizing mental health, many individuals begin to misinterpret their sadness for depression and vice versa," says Dr. Westers.
Everyone gets sad from time to time (sometimes daily), especially in response to disappointing news. However, when sadness becomes so overwhelming that it begins to interfere with sleep, eating, social life, grades and fun activities, or it lasts for a couple weeks or more at a time, then it becomes depression. Likewise, everyone has mood swings from time to time, and some people feel certain emotions stronger than others. However, when those mood swings cause distinct periods of time in which an individual has an elated mood, decreased need for sleep, hypersexuality, takes unhealthy risks or displays irrational behavior, feels like they are better than others or has racing thoughts, then they may have bipolar disorder.
If you have questions about what is a normal range of emotions vs. a mental health disorder, Dr. Westers encourages families to consult with a health care provider.
Will talking to someone about death and suicide put the idea in their head?
When parents worry that their child might be considering suicide, they may also worry that asking their child if they have thoughts about suicide will put the idea in their mind or make them more suicidal. On the contrary, Dr. Westers says many people who have been thinking of suicide feel relieved to talk about it, and research suggests that asking about it may make them less likely to consider it.
If your child has expressed thoughts about death or suicide, or you are concerned he or she might be thinking about suicide, you should talk to your child about what they are feeling, validate those feelings, and offer help and support.
Can violent behavior be blamed on mental illness?
When violent acts occur, it is common for people to bring up mental health as a way to address any unknowns. However, it is wrong to assume that all people with a mental health diagnosis are dangerous or that only people with mental disorders would commit such acts.
"There are many factors that contribute to the risk of violent behavior, and mental health is only sometimes a component of this," explains Dr. Westers. "If anything, people with mental health diagnoses are at much higher risk of harming themselves than anyone else. With proper diagnosis and treatment, these conditions can be well managed."
Dr. Westers notes that a history of aggression such as domestic violence is a more accurate predictor for violent behavior than mental health. Talk with your child about what he or she has to say about mental illness and violence to help correct any misperceptions they might have.
Check in with your child
One of the best ways you can promote mental health in your child is to check in with them frequently. Look for everyday opportunities to discuss mental health – whether it comes up in the news, a TV show or just when asking how a day at school was. "This might be a good time to talk with your child and ask if they or their friends are experiencing sadness, depression or anxiety," encourages Dr. Westers. "Ask them about what worries them and listen to what they have to say."
Allowing your child to talk while you simply listen without giving unsolicited advice can help them process emotions in a healthy way. Ironically, sometimes simply listening rather than jumping in to fix what's wrong is where the real healing happens. "Listening is often the ‘fix' when fixing doesn't fix," Dr. Westers likes to say. Depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders are treatable conditions which should not limit a child from living a happy healthy life.
Learn more about Children's Health services for mood disorders such as depression in children and adolescents.
Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available 24/7. You'll also find helpful information at Suicide Prevention Resource Center and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE).
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