How to support a child with mental health challenges

With significant changes occurring in the mind, body and brain, adolescence can be a complex time. Mental health issues are common for those aged 12–25, but many young people will not feel comfortable seeking help. Viva Energy proudly supports headspace, who work to reduce the stigma of mental illness in young people, and to encourage those at risk to seek help.

It can be easy to fall into a routine and not notice or be mindful of your child’s mental health, especially if you work remotely. So how can you tell if a young person in your family is experiencing problems? And if you suspect something is up, what should you do?

Dr Natalie Gray, chief medical officer for headspace, says recent research into the mental health of young people in Australia showed that many young people are suffering in silence because of the stigma associated with mental health problems.

“We found that 52% of young people nationally said if they experienced a mental health issue they would be too embarrassed to tell anyone about it. Almost a quarter of those young people said they’d even be too uncomfortable to tell their family doctor.”

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Watching for warning signs

Dr Gray says if you’re concerned about a young person, the most important thing to look for is a change from their normal behaviour.

One indication may be a loss of interest in their usual activities. “For example, maybe they’re no longer interested in listening to music or playing sport, or going to the movies and hanging out with their friends.”

Another sign could be loss of appetite or a change in sleep patterns. Dr Gray says, “If a young person is not able to sleep, or they’re sleeping all the time, and that’s a change from what is normal for them, that can be a sign that something’s bothering them.”

These signs are not always an indicator of the worst. “It may be as severe as a mental health issue, or it might just be something going on in their life that they’re feeling challenged by and they’re not quite sure how to manage or cope.”

Either way it’s important to let them know you want to help.

Creating a safe space for conversation

Many parents express to headspace workers that they’re concerned about asking a young person direct questions about mental health. They are scared they’ll make them uncomfortable or make the situation worse.

Dr Gray says this doesn’t need to be a concern. “If a parent, family member or friend asks the young person directly if they are okay and says to them, ‘You know I’ve noticed you’re not doing the things you would normally enjoy and I’m worried about you,’ it can really open up a space for the young person to talk about how they’re feeling.”

Most young people who are experiencing challenges like this feel very alone. They tend to feel that nobody understands.

“We always say to parents that a conversation might not happen there and then. The young person might grumble away and leave, but maybe the next day or a couple of days later they might be ready. They now know there’s a safe space where they can talk about how they’re feeling.”

Dr Gray also recommends parents say to their young person, ‘We know it can be hard to talk about how you’re feeling, but I’m here for you if you ever want to talk about it. I’ll understand, and I can help you get help if that’s what you need.’

It’s really about being upfront and honest, and letting them know you want to have that conversation.

Accessing help for a young person

Dr Gray says there’s a long, lingering misconception in parts of the community that there’s nothing that can be done for people with mental health issues.

“There are now very good evidence-based treatments, and the vast majority of young people will get better. Many will not even have a second episode, so if they’re able to seek treatment early it’s enormously beneficial for them both personally and in relation to their work and study.”

Talking openly is a powerful way of breaking down harmful stigma around mental health. Helping young people to access help enables them to develop the skills and strategies they need to work through their challenges, so they can get back to enjoying their life.

Go here for the story of a young person who has managed his mental health with the help of headspace.

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