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How can we promote good mental health in our children?

Sep 13, 2019

The clearest evidence of a national crisis in youth mental health is our rising suicide rates. Suicide rates are up in all American demographics and, contrary to what many think, young people are less likely to die by suicide than adults. But suicide rates among youth are rising faster than are adult rates. Suicide rates in all teenagers are up about 70% in 10 years. In some subgroups of young people, rates have doubled in 10 years. These increases began in 2008, after nearly 20 years of declining teen suicide rates. Most mental health professionals recognize that there have been substantial increases in anxiety and clinical depression among youth. Other contributors to this crisis have been proposed, including the role of social media.

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Suicide rates (number of deaths per year per 100,000 people in age group) among 15- to 19-year-olds, 1981-2017. Source: WISQARS (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System), Centers for Disease Control. Data run and chart compiled by Dale Wisely (Sept 2019)

 

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Source: WISQARS (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System), Centers for Disease Control. Data run and chart compiled by Dale Wisely (Sept 2019)

 

Good, loving parents do what they can to enhance their children’s mental and behavioral health. This can be lifesaving. Consider the leading causes of death among teenagers: Motor vehicle crashes, suicide, homicide. Close behind these are other unintentional fatal injuries, which are often related to things that happen to youth when they are together in recreational settings (drownings, fall from high places.) And, as we know, far too many teenagers die from unintentional overdoses of drugs and/or alcohol.

Consider now how many of these leading causes of death are often related to mental and behavioral health and/or substance abuse. Motor vehicle crashes are often caused by drinking and driving, being distracted by peers in the vehicle, speeding, and reckless driving. Suicide is obviously related to mental health and, often, substance abuse. Teenagers who are murdered are often caught up in gangs or drug activity. Every major cause of death (and severe injury) among teenagers is highly influenced by mental & behavioral health, including involvement in alcohol and drug abuse.

This week, a paper published in JAMA Pediatrics by Christina Bethell & others at Johns Hopkins reports a correlation between certain positive childhood experiences and better adult mental health.

Children are more likely to have better mental health, a lower risk of depression, and healthier relationships in adulthood if they are able to:

  • Talk with family members about their feelings,

  • Say that their families stood by them during difficult times,

  • Enjoy participating in community traditions,

  • Have a sense of belonging in school,

  • Feel supported by friends,

  • Have at least two non-parent adults who take genuine interest in them, and

  • Feel safe and protected by an adult in their home.

Parents can do things to help their kids have these positive experiences. They can encourage talking about feelings.

Talking about feelings is an example of an idea that has been dismissed by some social commentators in the last 20 years as “psycho-babble.” Parents should avoid this kind of cynicism. I have no doubt that we do well by helping our kids learn to respectfully share their feelings. A child who is sad needs to be able to say so. A child who is angry needs to learn how to say that to others in a non-hurtful way.

We can be supportive when kids go through tough times. We can do all we can reasonably do to help them feel safe, even if we cannot (and should not?) protect them from all danger.  We can look for mentors for our kids: Good teachers, coaches, worship leaders, doctors and counselors (when needed) and relatives.

There has been other research on the importance of kids having good, supportive friends. Parents can't engineer their kids’ social lives. But if parents prioritize teaching their kids to be kind and supportive of others—to be a good and respected friend, to stand up for peers who are mistreated or bullied—this may well help our kids develop supportive and lasting friendships.

Before closing with a prayer, I always ask that if you find yourself in a position to do so, please advocate for better mental health care for our youth. MOST children and teenagers with emotional and behavioral difficulties do not get the care they need.

Thank you.

 

Lord, you entrust these children to our care.

This is both an immeasurable gift and a duty to you, to our communities, and to our children.

Lord, let us be to our children what you are to us.

You listen when we hurt.

You are with us in difficult times.

You bring us together with our brothers and sisters into bonds of friendship and love.

You keep our souls safe in your loving embrace.

Help us to move beyond our own pain to open our hearts to our children.

We pray for these things in the name of your son, Jesus.

AMEN.

 

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