Talking to teens about mental health can be awkward. There are some personal questions to ask we are not sure we would even answer and may even feel unequipped to handle such a conversation. Netflix shows like ’13 Reasons’ and ‘To The Bone’ can heighten the awareness of mental health and have brought up conversations about mental health. By no means is this blog the ultimate answer to having these conversations but should be a starting place for your organization to look at how these conversations take place and why they are so vital to the well-being of the youth that you work with. There are a lot of great resources online to help navigate these conversations and promote mental health in the youth that you work with. Get informed, get trained and promote the mental health of youth just as you would promote other types of health. On the bottom of this post are some resources to start you off with.
While it is good to talk and inform youth about general mental health, there are specific signs to look for if you feel something is going on with a youth specifically. There may be a dramatic loss of interest in things that youth were typically involved in, a loss of appetite or over eating. Feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed, feeling hopeless and alone can all be warning signs that something is up. Other things to look out for may be that they start to have trouble in school, work or having trouble thinking and with their memory. As a youth worker you are often in close proximity to the lives of the youth that you are working with. If there are dramatic changes in behavior, attitude or outlook, or even there is a major life event (major for the youth, not just from your perspective), check in with them and start a conversation.
So you took notice that something might be off but you are not sure where to start. Simply start with the things that you have notice have changed. Their demeanor, their lack of appetite or general mood. People often drop the ball in these conversations because of stigmas related with mental illness but simply asking if they are feeling depressed, angry, unstable, suicidal may open up the conversation to find real help. Listen to the youth, no really, listen to them and what they are communicating to you. Don’t just wait for your turn to share an experience or give advice, simply listen. Ask them what they feel they need to help them get better and support them along the way. Normalize what they are going through. Youth often feel isolated and stigmatized by being “not normal,” but reassure them and walk alongside them. Don’t minimize what they are going through. Mental illness is real and its impact is real. Don’t blame others, the youth or compare them to someone else. Keep it positive and focused on the youth at hand and what they need to get well. Working with youth to help them share with their parents and supporting them through the conversation may be a next step if they are not your child.
Learn about mental illness and resources out there. Point youth, and their families, to professional. Chances are you are not a licensed counselor or psychologist. Don’t pretend to be. Help parents and youth come up with a plan to see a doctor and to get help. Your job is to support the youth through this journey not to fix them.
Check up on your own mental health. Take a mental health screening. Ask yourself how you are doing lately and take an inventory of stressors and life events. Learn about personal wellness strategies for yourself and be a role model for the youth that you work with.
Teens you work with are going through a lot, understanding the impact of mental health and starting a conversation could change their life.