May is Mental Health Month: What Can You Do to Foster Mental Wellness?

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Family therapy session | Photo by Gustavo Fring via Pexels

May is Mental Health Month. This national awareness initiative is a good reminder for all of us parents to pause and take stock of the mental wellness of the young people we love. For some, we may be concerned by what was see. And we would not be alone.

In fact, about a year ago, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared a youth mental health crisis in America. The crisis had been brewing long before Murthy formalized what mental health workers had witnessed for a decade: youth were experiencing increased levels of depression, isolation and suicidal thoughts.

So, what can we as parents do to help our kids move toward mental wellness? For help, we spoke with Dr. Adefolake Akinsanya, M.D., the service chief of the Female Adolescent Unit at Sheppard Pratt.

Baltimore’s Child: Why are experts saying our youth are in crisis? What trends are you seeing?

 Dr. Akinsanya: The pandemic ushered in significant social isolation, academic disruption, and lack of human connection. This increased youths seeking comfort and companionship in social media, which can lead to bullying, sexual exploitation and self-esteem issues.

The pandemic also caused people to lose their loved ones or caregiver, and caregivers losing jobs and their homes, leading to another traumatic experience. All of these coupled with growing concerns of social media use and its risks, gun violence, school shootings, climates change, natural disasters and manmade disasters such as wars. These had a significant impact on our young people.

Other community factors include easier access to illicit drugs and the decriminalization of these substances. We are also noticing a lack of or limited access to healthcare for many in our community.

 BC: Why do you think youth are struggling more today? What challenges are they facing?

Dr. Akinsanya: We should be very mindful about the impact of increased social media use, which not only adds to bullying and negative thoughts but also detracts from the time that young people spend doing things that foster mental wellness, such as exercising, playing outside, resting or building genuine friendships. Another concern is the race, gender and sexual orientation discrimination we see that is impacting our youth.

 BC: What are some things that parents and loved ones can do to help young people manage mental illness and preserve and help them pursue mental wellness?

Dr. Akinsanya: Parents and caregivers have a responsibility to provide a nurturing, loving, caring and stable environment. Appropriate boundaries to help your child develop the necessary social and emotional skills they need are also important. Be supportive and open-minded, listen more, create a safe space, help your child identify their emotions and express them, seek help for them and with them, be interested in their daily activities and learn their stressors.

It’s also important to spend time getting to know your children. Many parents take for granted that they know them, but developing a relationship takes time and intention. Show genuine interest, checking in with them regularly with lots of empathy and validation.

It is also helpful to seek out psychoeducation tools about metal health, stressors, coping skills and social media use. There are so many resources available to help you and your children learn more about their mental wellness. A good place to start is the National Alliance on Mental Illness at nami.org or Sheppard Pratt’s “News and Views” page, which is searchable by topic.

BC: What guidance do you give young people to help them cope and find wellness?

First, mental health challenges are real! If you are experiencing mental illness, it is important to seek help and invest in your treatment.

I also recommend that patients take care of both their physical and mental health. Self-care for both the body and mind is important.

Another factor is to please be intentional about your social media, video games, television and other technology use.

Visit the resources I shared or reach out to an expert to learn and utilize stress management skills.

BC: For youth in crisis, what kinds of help are available? 

There are lots of ways that families can access appropriate mental healthcare. Your primary care doctor can refer you. You may also find help through your local crisis team or national and local suicide hotlines. Sheppard Pratt has a Psychiatric Urgent Care that can evaluate a patient and triage to an appropriate level of care.

Our schools also have individuals trained to help students access care, including their teachers, school counselor and other administrators.

Finally, parents, family and friends are important advocates for a child in crisis. If your child or a young person you love shows signs of mental illness, don’t delay. Talk to them and connect them to help.

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