June 2009

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Raising a Mensch

Minding Your Mind

-- Susan Saler

I have had mental health issues since I was a kid. There was no overt reason why as my childhood in a middle-class, conservative Jewish family was comfortably ordinary. My parents and siblings loved and cared for me even with my challenging behavior. My ‘issues’ became my calling card, and over time, were neatly packaged and labeled as “middle child syndrome” and “menacing teenager.”
No one ever examined me or asked me the questions that more than likely would have uncovered the odd feelings, thoughts and behaviors I had. I certainly did not have the tools to communicate my issues or ask for help. This was not anyone’s fault. After all, our cultural rule of thumb is “If you can’t see it, it ain’t broke.” From before my 10th birthday, I have experienced suicidal thoughts, bouts of irrational anger and days of not being able to get out of bed. Despite my best efforts and a supportive network of family and friends, it has taken 27 yrs to receive the proper diagnosis and treatment for my mental health disorder, Bipolar Type II.

I share my experience with you to illustrate that more often than not, mental health issues among youth are misdiagnosed, or missed altogether. Fifty percent of individuals who will ever be diagnosed with a mental health disorder show signs by 14 years of age. Yet, four/fifths of adolescents who need mental health services do not receive them.

Invariably, we are all affected. One in every five families are touched by mental health disorders, which means there is at least one mental health disorder among your extended family, friends and neighbors, if not under your own roof. Sometimes is can be difficult for a young person or parent to know when one’s mood and/or behavior indicates an emotional or mental health issue. First, we are not prepared with the tools to identify and communicate feelings. Second, the ages of onset are full with significant developmental and life changes.

  • Developing one’s personal identity and values
  • Puberty and related physiological changes
  • Peer pressure, dating, and friendships
  • Academic and extracurricular pressures
  • Employment and/or other new responsibilities
  • Changes in living situation (such as moving to a college campus away from home)

It is normal to feel overwhelmed or fearful during this time. Today’s youth face issues well beyond developmental changes; such as increased competition and cost associated with higher education, a volatile economy and increased costs of living, not to mention terrorist threats, war, environmental and other global issues. Often, a child will exhibit brief periods of sadness, fear or anxiety in response to these issues. Most young people will bounce back from stressful events with the support of family and peers, by focusing on their ambitions, and pursuing their interests.Others will exhibit prolonged periods of distress that impact their ability to function normally (ie, interact with friends, maintain grades, take care of themselves physically). Do not assume that changes in behavior or mood are just a phase.

Authors of Come Back: A Mother & Daughter’s Journey Through Hell & Back will be appearing at the 4th Annual Mental Health Forum.

It is critical to open up the lines of communication without judgment. Reports of prevalent anxiety and depression, substance abuse and self-harm in youth indicate the need for consistent, vigilant attention to be paid to how a young person is coping.

Results from a 2004 online survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of over 1,000 college students and 1,000 parents illustrates the different perceptions held by youth and parents regarding communication on mental health.

Fifty percent of students rate their mental health as below average or poor, while only 25 percent of parents report their student’s mental health to be in this range. In addition, 30 percent of students report that they or friends have had problems functioning at school because of a mental health problem, yet only seven percent of parents say their student has experienced this.

Remember, the objective is not to interrogate or accuse your child, but to develop ways to communicate honestly about how they are feeling, and if they are “acting out”, to focus on why. Often, the knee jerk reaction is to punish a child when they act out, particularly with substance use and other risky behaviors. Keep in mind that the majority of teens who engage in risky behaviors are really calling out for help.

Ask questions of anyone and everyone in your child’s life, starting with your child and family members, then teachers and coaches. Next, talk to your child’s physician. Many physical problems affect our behavioral or psychological well-being. Give your child the space to speak with their doctor (perhaps without you present), discuss the signs you are witnessing, and have a complete physical examination of your child performed. If the exam uncovers no potential physical cause, ask your physician for local referrals for a psychological evaluation.

Accessing the services of a mental health professional is not necessarily an indication that your child has a mental health “disorder.” They may simply need brief, additional support to move through life’s challenges. However, it is important to access professional assistance for the following reasons:

  • A professional evaluation is the best way to identify the issues and level of severity.
  • Early intervention will help to reduce the likelihood of symptoms reoccurring.
  • Short-term interventions can be highly successful when undertaken by a seasoned professional.

If your child is found to meet the clinical criteria of a mental health disorder, all is not lost! The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports.

There is a wealth of information on when and how to access help.

Among the resources is the Minding Your Mind Foundation (42 West Lancaster Avenue,Ardmore, PA 19003, Phone: 610-642-3879) which works to elminate the stigma surrounding mental health issues especially as they impact adolescents and young adults. The Foundation runs public education programs and also provides funding for research projects aimed at early identification and prevention of mental illness. In addition, Minding Your Mind sponsors an annual Mental Health Forum; the most recent one was held in May at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, PA.

At the 4th Annual Mental Health Forum participants heard from two families who lived through heartbreaking years of pain and confusion until they were able to find the appropriate care and treatment that offered a new lease on life for the children with mental health disorders and the parents who love them. The first-hand accounts were oferred by:

  • Claire and Mia Fontaine, co-authors of Come Back: A Mother & Daughter’s Journey Through Hell & Back.
    Mia Fontaine shares her precarious refuge in the abyss of criminals and heroin addicts, the painful childhood trauma that caused her near self-destruction, and her remarkable, if controversial, process of healing. Claire Fontaine shares a parent’s worst nightmare: having to save three-year-old Mia first from an abusive father, then a decade later from Mia, herself dealing with her manipulative, drug-fueled behavior and repeated disappearances. Claire ultimately forced her only child into a harsh-but-loving boot camp school that did save Mia’s life.
  • Jordan, Earl and Georgette Burnham
    Jordan Burnham was popular, a star athlete and student. He also secretly battled depression. Jordan miraculously survived jumping from his 9th story bedroom window and speaks openly about his depression, substance use, treatment. Loving and involved parents, Earl and Georgette Burnham recall their journey from discovering Jordan’s secret struggle to finding him appropriate help.
  • Dr. Brian Daly of Temple University shared his extensive research and clinical expertise working with adolescents and families experiencing emotional, behavioral, and academic problems.

If your child or someone you know exhibits signs of mental health problems, don't wait. Seek help from experts in the mental health field and find support groups in your area. You are not alone; there are many people willing to share their stories and experts who can guide you to appropriate care.

To view previous editions of "Raising a Mensch", please click here.

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