Being proactive and addressing the stigma attached to mental illness are key in helping families identify and deal with youth mental health challenges, a panel of mental health professionals and advocates said Monday night during a public forum on the topic.
During the discussion, held in the Helena Middle School Auditorium, the panel talked about spotting signs that kids might be dealing with mental health problems, and then transitioned into the stigma attached to mental health issues.
The forum was the second in a series of three mental health forums being put on as a partnership between Helena Public Schools, Hometown Helena and the Helena Independent Record.
The forums have been put together in response to mass shootings around the country last year and several recent suicides and violent incidents involving teens in the Helena area.
Recognizing children’s mental health issues
There are a huge range of signs that kids might be dealing with mental health issues, but those might include children isolating themselves or losing interest in activities — such as sports — they once enjoyed, said panel member Kim Gardner, the lead clinical supervisor at Intermountain.
“If a parent has a sense that something is wrong, they need to listen,” said Leonard Lantz, the medical director of AWARE, a statewide organization that provides a number of mental health services.
He added that whatever challenges a child is dealing with can be brought on by a variety of things, such as changes in friendships, changes in relationships at home or events in the community.
He and others on the panel noted that problems may be physiological.
When it comes to children who are struggling with mental health issues, Gardner said it’s much easier to miss kids that are “acting in” — doing things like cutting themselves in private — than those who are acting out.
She also pointed out that some young people may have certain developmental areas that do not match their physical age.
“You can have a 15- or 16-year-old seeking a driver’s license who can academically pass the test, but developmentally they are really a 2- or a 3- year-old and they can not tolerate adult care and control and rules — and so that’s a not good combination,” she said.
The best way to identify any of these issues is for adults to take initiative and build strong relationships with the young people around them and be aware of problems they may be facing, several people on the panel said.
“It’s very important to be a trustworthy … and have those kinds of relationships where kids are going to let you know what’s going on,” Gardner said. “And when you see those shifts, it doesn’t always mean that a child is mentally ill, but if they’re struggling, and you sense they’re struggling, that’s your cue.”
“I think that it’s important (to say) not every problem, not every emotional change is necessarily representative of mental illness,” Lantz said. “About 20 percent of kids and adults struggle with mental illness.”
Sometimes adjustments as simple as making sure a child is getting enough sleep or adjusting interactions at school can make a huge difference in a kid’s mental health, Gardner said.
Understanding that kids looks to adults as role models for how to deal with life’s challenges — and adjusting your behavior accordingly — is an important way adults can help kids improve their mental health, Lantz said.
Crossover between mental health issues and substance abuse
Panel member Craig Struble, a Helena-based counselor, said that substance abuse often overlaps with mental health issues.
And that overlap can start at an early age, as attested to by Dana Meldrum, the Project Success counselor for Helena Middle School and C.R. Anderson Middle School.
She specializes in identifying kids that might be struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues and then helps those kids and their families connect with mental health care providers in the community.
“With a lot of my students, I’m often wondering which came first,” she said of their mental health problems and substance abuse. “It’s almost the chicken or the egg scenario. It’s diving into the child’s life to see what they’ve seen — is it learned behavior? Is it a developmental behavior? Is it something that’s biological?”
She said that nine times out of 10, kids who engage in substance abuse do so either because they are self-medicating and don’t know how to cope with something going on in their lives or because it’s a learned behavior from someone they’re close to.
Dispelling the stigma attached to mental health problems
Everyone on the panel agreed that dispelling the stigma often tied to mental health problems is a critical part of improving how the community deals with mental health issues.
Panel member Jill Henry, a family services specialist with Rocky Mountain Youth Resources said that one thing community members can do to help youth deal with mental health issues is to be supportive of families dealing with these types of issues.
Her daughter Morgan, a student at Capital High who is also a mental health advocate, said that “If adults and kids and everybody were more educated on mental health and how kids cope with everything … I think that would help a lot.”
Morgan is a part of Hope and Advocacy, a youth mental health advocacy group that recently won a national award from the National Council for Community Behavioral Health.
Many kids grow up thinking that people with mental illnesses are crazy — which is not the case, because mental illness can be treated and controlled, she said.
Morgan also pointed out that Montanans often pride themselves on their toughness — which makes it that much harder for people to feel comfortable acknowledging that they might need help with a mental health problem.
Lantz agreed with her, stating, “I think there is also this sense that people do have to fix their own problems, and so often times parents feel like they are giving up or giving in when they’re seeking mental health (services for their kids) – when it’s the opposite. They’ve really overcome the barriers there, what their friends will think or something.
“It’s unfortunate that parents might not have any qualms talking about their son or daughter’s diabetes or seizure disorder,” he said. “But they would be hesitant to bring up depression or an anxiety disorder.”
The third and final mental health forum, scheduled for April 8 at 6 p.m. in the Helena Middle School Auditorium, will feature a discussion of policy and funding issues facing youth mental health programs.