Data gathered and published by the CDC indicates that the number of children and teens in the U.S. who visited emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts doubled from 2007 to 2015. The average age of the patients was 13, but a full 43 percent of the visits were made by children between five and 11 years old.
Also according to the CDC, over seven percent of children aged three to 17 (approximately 4.4 million in total) have been diagnosed with anxiety, while 3.2 percent of children aged three to 17 (approximately 1.9 million in total) have been diagnosed with depression.
In addition, a recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between 2009 and 2017, the rate of teens from 14 to 17 diagnosed with depression jumped by upwards of 60 percent. The study also noted that every single age group between 12 and 21 experienced increases in the rate of depression of at least 46 percent.
Looking at these numbers (especially those dealing with suicidal ideation), parents might feel overwhelmed. It can also call into question the efficacy of public programs like school counseling. Ultimately it is up to parents to safeguard their children’s mental health. But how? Here are four places to focus your energy to make the maximum difference in your child’s life:
1. Rule out physical illnesses
If a child breaks an arm or steps on a nail, usually the diagnosis and treatment plan are both pretty straightforward. When instead, they seem tired, uninterested in eating or playing, unable to focus, or chronically irritable, it’s a whole different story. Consider these examples:
Dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and ability to enjoy normal activities are hallmarks of diagnoses like anxiety or bipolar disorders — but they can also be the main symptoms of certain thyroid diseases. The same goes for irritability, low moods, and weight loss; they could lead to a diagnosis of depression when it’s actually diabetes or Lyme disease.
Getting these diagnoses right isn’t as easy as finding a nail sticking out of a shoe, but it’s crucial that physical illnesses like the ones above not be overlooked. A good practitioner who is considerate of all the possibilities rather than being quick to assume a mental issue is who parents should look for. Proper diagnosis ensures that treatment — the right kind — can begin as soon as possible.
2. Talk to your kids
It may sound obvious, but talk to your children and teens about mental health, not just physical health. Younger children in particular tend to model the behaviors of their parents and other role models. The more consistent and transparent you are about the importance of mental well-being (including your own), the more your children will embody the same.
Of course, it isn’t always easy to talk to kids. The tiniest difference in tone or inflection can affect a child, including feeling like a parent’s inquiries are too invasive or aggressive. One concrete way to help them feel safer and more open about their own feelings is to talk about yours first. Trade thoughts and stories, rather than engaging in a power struggle over information.
3. Be very wary of psychotropic medications
More than 2 million children from ages 1-17 were prescribed antidepressants in 2017. A quarter of those were between six and 12 years old, while nearly 40,000 were younger than five. The rate of antidepressant prescription is sky-high, despite the fact that there isn’t much evidence that they work as intended.
Not only is their efficacy in question, but their safety is not guaranteed. Nearly all antidepressant medications come with the FDA’s black box warning, denoting serious risk. Psychotropic medicines can easily cause more harm than good and are known to amplify the risks of aggression, violence, and suicide among children.
The bottom line
Some of these things are arguably easier said than done; this will be obvious to anyone who has tried to get a preschooler to talk about their emotions, or a teenager to consider a radical diet change. Still, it’s tremendously important that parents try their best. Based on the disheartening data at hand, the upcoming generations need all the help they can get to stay healthy — not to mention the fact that our collective future lies in their hands.