By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.
Have you ever wondered if your child may have a mental health condition? Amanda Kaplan of NAMI Spokane shared information that can help wondering parents at an Ending the Silence for Families presentation during NAMI Spokane’s Youth Summit at the Spokane Public Library on October 12. In addition to presentations for families, NAMI Spokane also offers Ending the Silence presentations for school staff and middle/high school students. These presentations include discussions and activities around mental health and mental health conditions, including what students, parents, or school staff can do if youth are showing warning signs of a mental health condition.
At the October 12th presentation, Ms. Kaplan said that there are a number of warning signs that a youth may have a mental health condition. Those warning signs include:
- Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks.
- Severe, out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors that cause harm to self or others.
- Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart, physical discomfort of fast breathing.
- Seeing, hearing or believing things that aren’t real.
- Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, or sleeping habits.
- Extreme difficulty concentrating or staying still that puts a person in physical danger or causes school failure.
- Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities.
- Throwing up, using laxatives, or not eating to lose weight; significant weight loss or weight gain.
- Using alcohol or drugs excessively.
- Trying to harm oneself, attempting suicide or making plans to do so.
Ms. Kaplan said that parents are close observers of their children. Sometimes, it is very clear that a child is experiencing a mental health condition, but other times it may not be as clear. Ms. Kaplan gave the group at the summit specific scenarios of different children exhibiting different behaviors and asked if they sounded like typical youth behavior or if there are potential warning signs of a mental health condition. Her example of a child who is nervous about an upcoming test and then is free of anxiety once the test is passed was an example of typical youth behavior. Her example of a child who is experiencing nervousness and stress over an upcoming test that causes physical illness or anxiety that leads them to miss class, especially if it’s occurring for each test, is atypical behavior and they may be experiencing a mental health condition. Another example of a child suddenly giving away their belongings was identified by the group as a child who may be considering suicide and led to discussion on how to respond and the importance of asking the question “Are you thinking about suicide”. Finally, another example Ms. Kaplan provided fell into the gray area. Key to determining whether a child has a mental health condition is how intense the behavior is, how long it lasts, and how much it impairs daily functioning.
After recognizing a warning sign in their child, the next step for parents is reaching out to the child. One reason that Ms. Kaplan encouraged parents to reach out to their children about mental health issues is research has shown that early intervention is key to longer-term success with living with a mental health condition. She shared a number of statistics that show the result of not treating youth with mental health conditions. For example, 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health condition.
Mental health conditions affect the mood, thinking, and behavior of youth, similar to the way it affects adults. Ms. Kaplan stressed that a mental health condition is not anyone’s fault or something to be ashamed of and doesn’t have to limit their ability to achieve their goals.
To reach out to the child, find a comfortable, quiet place to talk. Ask the child to talk more about what’s happening. Stress to the child that if the parent can understand the situation better, the parent and child can work together to find a solution. Ask the child to share more about how they are feeling and state that the parent is here to listen. If the child doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to a parent, ask if there is a different adult that the child would feel comfortable opening up to.
Ms. Kaplan offered these tips for talking with a child about mental health:
- Choose a time to talk when your child feels safe and comfortable. Maybe involve an activity like going out to eat lunch, when you’re done.
- Communicate in a calm and straightforward way, prepare to do more listening than talking.
- Speak at a level that is appropriate to the child’s age and development level.
- Watch the child’s reactions and slow down or restate if the child becomes confused or looks upset.
- Listen openly and let the child talk about their feelings and worries.
The next step in the process is to work with school staff. Ms. Kaplan stressed that it is important to share concerns with the school and learn about behaviors that the child may be
exhibiting at school. Ask if the parent can work together with the school to meet the child’s needs. Find out if there are strategies that could be put into place to help the child. Classroom adjustments might include special seating, special homework, or other accommodations. Make sure to get an understanding of when the parent can meet with school staff again and how they will communicate in the future.
Talking with healthcare professionals is also important at this stage. Share concerns with the child’s doctor and ask if an evaluation or referrals are needed. Be well organized and educate yourself.
Once the school and health professionals have been contacted, Ms. Kaplan stated that resources and support should be shared with the child.
Support is available from a number of resources including:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline – 988
24 Hour Crisis Line – 1-866-4CRISIS or 206-461-3222
Teen Link – Call or Text 1-866-TEENLINK (866-833-6546) Teen Link’s Where to Turn for Teens
WA Recovery Help Line – 1-866-789-1511
Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBTQIA+ 1-866-466-7386 or Text START to 678-678
NAMI HelpLine: 1-800-950-6264 Call 211 for information & referrals to community services NAMI: www.nami.org
Ms. Kaplan and NAMI Spokane volunteers are available to lead Ending the Silence presentations for middle/high school students, school staff, and community groups. In addition to
Ms. Kaplan’s presentation, Ending the Silence includes a presentation from a young person who shares their experience and the strategies that have helped them live well with a mental health condition. Ms. Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Amanda Kaplan is the Programs and Outreach Coordinator for NAMI Spokane. She is a presenter for the Ending the Silence program and a state trainer. She completed a law degree at Gonzaga University before switching the focus of her work to mental health.
Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.