By Barb Solish, Director of Youth and Young Adult Initiatives, National Alliance on Mental Illness
We are more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended life as we knew it and caused a generation of Americans to miss out on milestones and activities such as prom, sports, and graduation. As many transition to pre-COVID routines and classrooms while others continue remote learning, one thing remains consistent among America’s youth: COVID-19 related stress has caused an epidemic of mental health. As we observe Mental Health Awareness Month during a particularly stressful year for many, we reached out to our friends as National Alliance on Mental Illness to share tips for communicating with the young people in your life about mental health and when to seek help.
Over a year has gone by since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world. Since then, fears about our health and the health of our loved ones, isolation, and economic concerns have affected us all, including our young people.
Our nation’s youth have met enormous challenges—facing their fears about the virus while moving from a classroom amongst peers to sitting in front of a laptop by themselves—many without the support they need. As a result, an increasing number of young people are struggling with their mental health. There is hope, however, and this Mental Health Awareness Month, NAMI is sending the message to all who need to hear it: you are #NotAlone.
Youth Mental Health
Mental health conditions can affect anyone, and they currently affect one in six youth aged 6-17 years old. Mental illness often starts young; in fact, 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and 75% begin by age 24
Even before the pandemic, the data was striking among girls and young women. In 2019, nearly half of female high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. This is especially true for girls of color, who have a higher suicide risk: suicide death rates for Black American girls (ages 13-19) increased 182% from 2001 to 2017.
If what we were seeing before the pandemic was troubling, what we’re seeing now should encourage all of us to take action to support young people. In the Fall of 2020, 92% of female high schoolers and 72% of male high schoolers reported having at least one stress-related physical health symptom such as difficulty breathing, exhaustion, or headaches.
Getting our young people help early is vitally important.
Where to Start
Whether you’re a parent, caregiver, teacher, coach, etc., the first thing you can do is listen to the young people in your life. Let them know they can share with you anything they are feeling without fear of judgment.
One way to get the conversation going is to share your own experience with mental health: demonstrate to them that it’s okay to not be okay.
A next step is teaching them self-care and healthy habits to help them maintain their mental health, including:
- Exercising, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep
- Taking social media and news media breaks to decrease stress and worry
- Connecting with people safely in person or through calls and video chats
- Practicing relaxation tactics such as deep breathing or meditation
When to Get Help
It’s also essential to encourage young people to ask for help when they need it. Knowing the warning signs can also help you determine if they may need professional care. The warning signs of a mental health condition include:
- Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
- Trying to harm or end one’s life or making plans to do so
- Severe, out-of-control, risk-taking behavior that causes harm to self or others
- Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart, physical discomfort, or difficulty breathing
- Throwing up, using laxatives, or not eating to lose weight; significant weight loss
- Seeing, hearing, or believing things that aren’t real
- Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
- Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, or sleeping habits
- Extreme difficulty concentrating or staying still, leading to physical danger or failing at school or work
- Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
If you notice these signs, don’t wait. Getting help early is essential for young people to learn to manage their symptoms in a healthy way. With your support, and the support of a mental health care professional, you can ensure the young people in your life have the tools they need to be successful.
Barb Solish is Director of Youth and Young Adult Initiatives at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for people with mental health conditions and their loved ones. Learn more and get involved at www.nami.org.