By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month
Adriana Tatum-Howard
Adriana Tatum-Howard

By Adriana Tatum-Howard

 

As a mother and as someone who works with young people in our community, I was gutted to hear the recent story in the news about 10-year-old Sammy Teusch, a fourth-grader at Greenfield Intermediate School in Greenfield, Indiana. Sammy died by suicide after bullying, and according to his parents, was bullied right up until the day he died. Nearly 200 people – most of whom never met the blond-haired boy with the big smile – showed up to his funeral this week.

If only that many people had tried to help Sammy while he was alive.

Between this story and with May being Mental Health Awareness Month, young people’s emotional well-being has been on my mind. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 14, and the third-leading cause of death among 15 to 24-year-olds. For marginalized young people, the risks are significantly higher. LGBTQ+ teens are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide; and youth of color are less likely to access mental healthcare despite a higher incidence of trauma exposure.

In addition, teens are dealing with the lasting effects COVID and other, more typical stressors such as the overwhelming pressure to figure out their future, the need to be superstars in sports or the arts, tough schedules that don’t allow for unstructured fun, persistent fears, discrimination, and problems related to poverty. In short, it ain’t easy to be a young person today!

So, how can you know if your teen is struggling? In addition to more overt symptoms like irritability, mood swings, and tearfulness, be on the lookout for notable changes in sleep, weight, or eating habits; loss of interest in the things they usually love; withdrawing more than usual from friends and family; academic struggles that seem more intense or different; signs of drug or alcohol abuse or self-harm, among others. Youth who’ve run away or contemplated running away have exhibited the above-mentioned symptoms. Homeless youth and families at risk of homelessness often experience the same related to their situation and feelings of helplessness. Keep in mind, though, that having just one symptom doesn’t constitute a full-blown crisis, but consistently seeing several warrants a conversation with your teen.

If you’re at that point now, keep the following things in mind: Make it safe for your child to discuss tough issues with you. If they think they are going to be lectured or judged, they will not open up. Listen more than you speak and avoid autobiographical listening. In other words, don’t make the conversation about you or how you grew up. Fair, factual statements usually work best. Instead of saying, “You’ve been acting really strange lately,” say, “I noticed you avoid watching Netflix with us and wondered if something might be going on that makes it hard for you to enjoy things you usually love.” Accept some silence and understand that they may be experiencing shame and fear on top of everything else. Manage your own fears and be patient.

As we enter the summer vacation months, students can often feel more isolated due to a lack of structure. Keep up a routine, practice healthy habits, and let your teen know that the emotions they may be feeling – anger, fear, or sadness – are all valid. Know when it is time to seek professional help. Park Place Outreach can assist in this area.

Most of all, let’s make sure that we learned the lessons of Sammy Teusch’s 10 years of life and support the young people in our lives.

Adriana Tatum-Howard is the Executive Director of Park Place, which has served more than 7,000 teens across the Coastal Empire, providing emergency shelter, meals, and counseling to at-risk youth and their families, since 1984. To learn more, visit parkplaceyes.org.

If you are struggling, call 9-8-8 to be connected to a trained professional responder who can address your immediate mental health crisis needs and connect you to ongoing care.