Editor’s Note: Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is chief medical officer at BeMe Health and on the faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
In a world that can often feel divided, it’s easy to lose sight of one thing all adults have in common — we were all kids once. Our caregivers and educators played integral roles in our mental health, our views of the world and our abilities to navigate life’s ups and downs.
An estimated 1 in 4 people worldwide will experience a mental health condition during their lifetime, according to the United Nations.
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I believe that if every school and family invested in creating guidelines for how to support a young person’s mental health — especially during their formative teenage years — more children would have the skills and support they need to thrive well into adulthood. Here’s what should be in that playbook:
Provide quality education on mental health
The first step in addressing any problem is recognizing it exists. Mental health is no different. Schools and families can ensure that kids and teens are learning about mental health — from awareness of signs and symptoms of common conditions to tips on how to maintain and improve overall well-being.
By incorporating a formal curriculum on what mental health means and what conditions look like, schools could exponentially improve kids’ knowledge bases on the topic. It would help them identify if they’re struggling before it’s too late, help friends in need or even spot and dispel misinformation when they come across it in places they traditionally turn to — such as social media.
Education doesn’t need to start and stop with schools. Caregivers, too, can start teaching children what they know about mental health, share any family history of mental health conditions and encourage their kids to turn to resources where they can learn more.
Create safe spaces to talk
Today’s young people are finally growing up in an era where mental health is no longer taboo. Yet opening up can still be difficult. To create safe spaces for these conversations, we need to invite children — whether they’re young kids or older teens — to share what they’re thinking and feeling without judging, criticizing or invalidating them.
Consider proactive check-ins at school every Friday. Or go around the dinner table at home on Tuesdays and ask how everyone is feeling. By making mental health part of the regular conversation, we are sending the message that it’s OK not to be OK, that mental health is important, and that we can support each other through what comes our way.
Give them a tool kit of coping skills
One of the most common questions I get from parents and teens is what to do about the nonstop stressors of life. And my advice is the same every time: Those stressors aren’t going to stop. So, let’s figure out how to cope with the feelings that come with them and deal with them, one at a time.
Creating a coping tool kit is relatively straightforward, and the skills themselves work incredibly well in getting the brain’s emotion centers calm down.
I encourage kids to make lists of what activities work best to help them feel better when those intense feelings hit — whether it’s listening to music, doing a few jumping jacks, reading a book or distracting themselves with a task such as folding a pile of laundry.
It might take some trial and error to figure out which coping skills are the most helpful, but once identified, they should be added to that list and used again. These lists are easy to make, both in the classroom and at home, and kids should be able to practice their skills in both settings.
Have a plan for extra support
Once a child has an identified mental health concern, it can be difficult to figure out how and where to get help. But a proactive plan can be put into use should a tough scenario come up where a child needs support in a timely way.
Educators and caregivers should know when and how to refer kids for a formal mental health evaluation or professional treatment. Parents should know how to request accommodations at school, and schools should consider partnerships with community organizations, companies and local mental health practices.
And a safety plan for crises
Emergency room visits for suicidal behaviors in young people have increased significantly during the pandemic, highlighting the need for crisis support, especially for adolescents. However, while in crisis, it can be difficult to figure out what to do. Proactive safety planning at home or at school can equip kids with a set of steps to follow if or when crisis moments hit. The plan might include a list of trusted adults, ways to make an environment safe and common phone numbers for crisis lines, including the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or Crisis Text Line.
Include youth voices
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At the end of the day, there’s nothing more valuable than asking the kids in your family or in your classroom where they’re at, what they need and what helps them feel supported. If we want to support young people better, we need to spend a lot more time listening and understanding so that we can meet their needs, putting our assumptions aside.
Youth mental health really is a shared responsibility. If we take it on together — in classrooms, homes and beyond — we might be surprised at what the next generation looks like.