Parent's Guide to Mental Illness

Why is it hard for parents to identify mental illness in children?

Unfortunately, many adults don't know the signs and symptoms of mental illness in children, it can be difficult to distinguish signs of a problem from normal childhood behaviour. You might reason that every child displays some of these signs at some point. There are as many misconceptions about teen depression occasional bad moods or acting out is to be expected, but depression is something different. Depression can destroy the very essence of a teenager’s personality, causing an overwhelming sense of sadness, despair, or anger. Concerns about the stigma associated with mental illness, the use of certain medications, and the cost or logistical challenges of treatment might also prevent parents from seeking care for a child who has a suspected mental illness.

What are the warning signs of mental illness in children?

Teenagers face a host of pressures, from changes of puberty to questions about who they are and where they fit in. The natural transition from child to adult can also bring parental conflict as teens start to assert their independence.

Warning signs:

*Sadness or hopelessness

*Irritability, anger, or hostility

*Tearfulness or frequent crying

*Withdrawal from friends and family

*Loss of interest in activities

*Changes in eating and sleeping habits

*Restlessness and agitation

*Feelings of worthlessness and guilt

*Lack of enthusiasm and motivation

*Fatigue or lack of energy

*Difficulty concentrating

*Unexplained weight loss.

*Physical harm.

*Substance abuse.

For the majority of suicidal teens, who also abuse alcohol or drugs, the risk of suicide is even greater. Because of the very real danger of suicide, teenagers who are depressed should be watched closely for any signs of suicidal thoughts or behaviour. 

If you suspect that a child/teenager in your life is suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately.

Suicide warning signs in depressed teens

*Talking or joking about committing suicide

*Saying things like, “I’d be better off dead,” “I wish I could disappear forever,” or “There’s no way out.”

*Speaking positively about death or romanticizing dying (“If I died, people might love me more”)

*Writing stories and poems about death, dying, or suicide

*Engaging in reckless behavior or having a lot of accidents resulting in injury

*Giving away prized possessions

*Saying goodbye to friends and family as if for the last time

*Seeking out weapons, pills, or other ways to kill themselves

*Encouraging a depressed teen to open up

Tips for Talking to a Depressed Teen

If your child/teen claims nothing is wrong but has no explanation for what is causing the depressed behavior, you should trust your instincts. Remember that denial is a strong emotion. Furthermore, teenagers may not believe that what they’re experiencing is the result of depression.

Offer support

Let depressed teenagers know that you’re there for them, fully and unconditionally. Hold back from asking a lot of questions (teenagers don’t like to feel patronized or crowded), but make it clear that you’re ready and willing to provide whatever support they need.

Be gentle but persistent

Don’t give up if your adolescent shuts you out at first. Talking about depression can be very tough for teens. Be respectful of your child’s comfort level while still emphasizing your concern and willingness to listen.

Listen without lecturing

Resist any urge to criticize or pass judgment once your teenager begins to talk. The important thing is that your child is communicating. Avoid offering unsolicited advice or ultimatums as well.

Validate feelings

Don’t try to talk your teen out of his or her depression, even if his or her feelings or concerns appear silly or irrational to you. Simply acknowledge the pain and sadness he or she is feeling. If you don’t, he or she will feel like you don't take his or her emotions seriously.

Getting treatment for teen depression

Depression is very damaging when left untreated, so don’t wait and hope that the symptoms will go away.

What should I do if I suspect my child has a mental health condition?

If you're concerned about your child's mental health, consult your child's doctor. Describe the behavior that concerns you. Consider talking to your child's teacher, close friends or loved ones, or other caregivers to see if they've noticed any changes in your child's behavior.

Taking care of the whole family when one child is depressed

As a parent dealing with teen depression, you may find yourself focusing all your energy and attention on your depressed child. Meanwhile, you may be neglecting your own needs and the needs of other family members. While helping your depressed child should be a top priority, it’s important to keep your whole family strong and healthy during this difficult time.

Take care of yourself – In order to help a depressed teen, you need to stay healthy and positive yourself, so don’t ignore your own needs. The stress of the situation can affect your own moods and emotions, so cultivate your well–being by eating right, getting enough sleep, and making time for things you enjoy. Reach out for support – Get the emotional support you need. Reach out to friends, join a support group, or see a therapist of your own. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, helpless, or angry. The important thing is to talk about how your teen’s depression is affecting you, rather than bottling up your emotions. Be open with the family – Don’t tiptoe around the issue of teen depression in an attempt to “protect” the other children. Kids know when something is wrong. When left in the dark, their imaginations will often jump to far worse conclusions. Be open about what is going on and invite your children to ask questions and share their feelings.

Remember the siblings – Depression in one child can cause stress or anxiety in other family members, so make sure “healthy” children are not ignored. Siblings may need special individual attention or professional help of their own to handle their feelings about the situation.

Avoid the blame game. It can be easy to blame yourself or another family member for your teen’s depression, but it only adds to an already stressful situation.