What can parents do to help kids struggling with mental health?

Youth mental health: What can parents do?

In the past five years, the number of parents seeking information on mental health from Dayton Children’s Hospital has increased 238 percent.

Parents often want to know what to look for to know if their child is suffering from depression, anxiety or another mental health disorder and what to do if they are. 

RELATED: Why youth mental health is one of the Miami Valley’s biggest issues

“Kids like rest of us, they wear a mask,” said Greg Ramey, pediatric psychologist and executive director for the Center for Pediatric Mental Health Resources at Dayton Children’s. “They appear one way to their parents and even their peers and you know life is very different.”

The Dayton Daily News’ Path Forward initiative investigates the region’s most pressing issues and we’re focusing on the Miami Valley’s mental health — starting with the youngest victims.

Staying engaged is the best thing parents can do, Ramey and other experts said, taking notice of your child’s moods, behaviors and emotions so you can notice changes as well as being a person they feel they can turn to.

“Raise them in such a way where you are an askable parent and kids feel like they can say things to you that reveal a little bit of who they are,” Ramey said. 

READ MORE: Q&A with Dayton Children’s Greg Ramey

Parents should also familiarize themselves with the signs and symptoms of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI.  

Each illness has its own symptoms, but common signs of mental illness in adults and adolescents can include the following:

  • Excessive worrying or fear. In young children this can result in fighting to avoid bed or school. 
  • Feeling excessively sad or low.
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning. For kids this could result in a change in school performance. 
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria.
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger.
  • Avoiding friends and social activities. 
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people.
  • Changes in sleeping habits, or feeling tired and low energy.
  • Changes in eating habits, such as increased hunger or lack of appetite.
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist).
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality or a “lack of insight.”
  • Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs.
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, or vague and ongoing aches and pains).
  • Thinking about suicide.
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress.
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance.
  • Hyperactive behavior.
  • Frequent nightmares.
  • Frequent disobedience or aggression.
  • Frequent temper tantrums.

It can be difficult for parents to differentiate normal adolescent changes from mental health symptoms, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health. It’s a topic discussed during  the agency’s Youth Mental Health First Aid courses — offered locally by Montgomery County’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Board.

RELATED: Teen suicide: One mother’s story

For example it’s typical for some teens to withdraw from their family to spend more time with friends, the course material says. But a teen who is withdrawing from even their friends could be showing a warning sign of mental illness.

Teens also may move away from childhood interests and hobbies as they age, but a warning sign would be if they don’t replace those interests with something else. 

“If you think you notice symptoms, schedule an appointment with a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist as soon as you can, or if that is not possible, then with your pediatrician or primary care physician,” NAMI recommends. 

Resources for parents:

Dayton Children’s Mental Health Resource Connection hotline is staffed by trained, licensed social workers. They can connect callers to the best resources in the community for their child’s needs and will follow up to make sure there aren’t any barriers to getting care. 

Conditions that can be evaluated by a liaison include, but are not limited to, emotional issues, anger issues, eating disorders, behavioral issues, anxiety, family conflicts or depression. 

The service is free and a list of all available mental health resources is available and searchable at www.childrensdayton.org/patients-visitors/services/behavioral-health/resources/mental-health-resource-connection.

Samaritan Behavioral Health has an assessment program specifically for children age 6 and younger who experience attention issues or hyperactivity, trauma, developmental issues including autism, and behavioral concerns including aggressive behavior. Call 937-734-4310.

Additional helplines:

American Psychiatric Association Answer Center, 1-888-35-PSYCH (77924).

American Psychological Association Public Education Line, 1-800-964-2000.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

National Alliance on Mental Illness, www.nami.org or 1-800-950-NAMI.

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