Promoting your child’s mental health

The suicide of Robin Williams has brought attention to the fact that an estimated 750,000 people every year attempt to kill themselves. How can parents raise their children to help inoculate them from the demons that lead so many people to feel that death is better than life?

1. Select a great doctor for your child. The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a leadership role in educating pediatricians and others about the importance of mental health. Annual checkups by your doctor should include questions not only about your child’s physical status, but also about their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Find a physician who is interested in your child’s overall health not just their body mechanics and chemistry.

2. Integrate a mental health curriculum in our schools. Kids spend a tremendous amount of time in schools, giving us a great opportunity to help them be mentally healthy. I’m not suggesting some soft curriculum to help kids feel good about themselves. Rather, we need to teach kids how to deal with their emotions, solve problems, learn about relationships, acquire self-control, develop resiliency and learn when and how to seek help.

This is as much a part of a balanced education as learning geography and geometry. If physical education is mandated in most schools, shouldn’t mental health education be viewed as just as important?

3. Focus on what matters. Many mental disorders are evident in early childhood. You can do three things to help your child avoid problems later in life.

First, surround your child with loving and caring adults. Meaningful contacts between your child and other adults are the single most important thing you can do to promote your child’s mental health. This means making family relationships a key priority. Involve your child in activities where they can experience the presence of people who will value, guide, and love them.

Second, avoid toxic experiences. Kids raised in an environment of family violence, drug abuse, mentally ill parents, severe economic hardships, and marital instability are much more likely to develop mental disorders. I realize you don’t have control over all of these factors, but many are within your influence.

Finally, don’t be reluctant to seek professional help for your child. Attentive parents go to extraordinary lengths to seek medical attention for a cough or cold, but ignore symptoms of depression, anxiety or conduct disorders.

I’m not blaming parents for this oversight, as our mental health system is complicated and confusing. Parents need help in distinguishing between normal childhood behaviors and symptoms of pathology. When in doubt, speak with other parents, your doctor, or with a mental health professional.

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Dr. Ramey is the Executive Director of Dayton Children’s Pediatric Center for Mental Health Resources and can be contacted at Rameyg@childrensdayton.org.

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