The Beginning of My Mental Health Journey
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting upon my own mental health during my teenage years. At 15, I started to notice my need for alone time and my discomfort in large groups or crowded spaces. At 16, I started seeing a therapist and worked closely with teachers that I trusted. Still, I had a difficult time being honest with my parents, and I secretly stayed up until the wee hours of the morning obsessing about homework– because perfectionism– or talking on the phone with my boyfriend. I was struggling with anxiety, but asking for help didn’t fit in with the expectations of achievement culture.
During high school and into college, I faced depression, anxiety, and loneliness. While I had a foundation of support from family, friends, and professionals, I didn’t fully trust the process of asking for and receiving help. It was not until my mid-20s that I felt empowered to start talking about my challenges, needs, or preferences and taking ownership of my mental health journey.
Teens and Mental Health
Teenagers today might be facing more pressure to perform than ever before. In fact, many young people I have had the honor of meeting describe themselves as “anxious,” “depressed,” “alone,” or “socially anxious.” I’m grateful that young people are finding– perhaps through the internet– resources to name their experiences and sensations, AND I’m concerned about the stigmas they face because of these labels.
I hear from so many teens that they not sure how to ask for help, uncertain how their parents or loved ones will respond, and that big or heavy feelings aren’t welcome in many spaces they occupy.
At the same time, parents reach out with concerns about their teens’ mental and emotional well-being. Mental health is a topic that deserves space, awareness, openness, and safety. Furthermore, it’s not a conversation that can be checked off a list; it’s an ongoing subject to tend to within your family. The following strategies will support you in making space for conversations about mental health with your teen.
9 Ideas for Destigmatizing Conversation about Mental Health
- Normalize asking for help. Talk about asking for help as a tool, a strength, and a normal part of being human. Remind your teen that they can ask for help when they notice that there is a problem they can’t solve alone. Name the fact that they never have to be “stuck” solving something alone. Brainstorm, together, the many layers of support they can access– family, school, professional, friends. . You might also invite your teen to think about the range of ways they can reach out when they need support. This may be writing a note to a teacher, “I need to talk after class,” or texting you on tough days, “I need extra love and relaxation at home tonight,” or asking for the opportunity to see a coach or therapist.
- Use compassionate, supportive language. Do your best not to label people in the media (real or fictional) as “crazy” or “insane.” It’s important to steer clear of dehumanizing and ableist language. Speak with compassion and kindness about others in the face of their challenges, limitations, and illnesses.
- Talk about emotions regularly. Address and normalize the full range of emotions that we all face as humans– from great joy to deep sadness to fierce anger and so on. When they share stories or experiences, you might ask questions like, “And how did that feel?” or “What did you notice in your body?” Explore this list of feelings words independently or as a family to deepen your vocabulary.
- Give attention and love to the “gems”! Be sure to affirm the aspects of your child’s life that are strong, steady, and life-giving. The “gems” are the gifts, unique skills, and strengths that your child possesses.
- Be aware of signs, but don’t look with a magnifying glass. Familiarize yourself with “red flags” or signs of mental distress or illness. Read up on teens and mental health, especially anxiety and depression. Yet, stay calm and don’t hunt for signs or signals.
- If signs emerge, approach your teen with non-judgmental curiosity. It’s important to approach your teen gently, kindly, and with a sense of openness. Use questions, rather than statements. Ask open-ended questions like the following: “How are you managing the pressure of high school?” “What is feeling impossible about being a teenager right now?” “What parts of being in middle school feel peaceful and supportive?” Give your teen space to share their experience, rather than labeling it for them. Remember, this kind of conversation may take several attempts and invitations before your teen opens up. You may also consider using “I statements” to own your feelings and concerns, like this: “I feel worried about the number of hours you are spending at your computer. How is that feeling for you?”
- Listen to your teen’s needs AND validate them. As your teen shares or asks for help, remember to listen. Take deep breaths, let them take up space, and refrain from immediately giving advice or jumping to conclusions. Always listen more than you talk.
- Create a rich support network, and review it regularly. Surround yourself, as the adult, with a support system of friends, family, professionals, coaches, etc. Likewise, encourage your teen to build relationships with their school counselor, teachers, coaches, friends, etc. Consider creating a support system map together.
- Address being a support and resource for others. Let your teen know that they can be a part of others’ support networks. They can also be aware of “red flags” in their friends’ behavior, and they can help friends ask for help and/or reach out to trusted adults on their friends’ behalf.
Stay in the Conversation
Stigmatization of challenges such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness contribute to isolation. As parents and supporters, we can support the young people in our lives by treating mental health and mental illness with education + acceptance, love, and compassion!
As with most important conversations, this one needs to be ongoing. Stay in the conversation. You can do this by revisiting these strategies often, keep communication open, remind your teen that you are there when they need help, and research together as new challenges or developments come up.
If you suspect your teenager is struggling with mental illness, please reach out to a mental health professional in your area. Inclusive Therapists is a great place to start your search. I’m here to offer accountability if you are ready to lean into this conversation and need support or referrals.