By Martiza Manresa
Understanding why teenagers are cognitively unprepared to cope with modern mental stress is the first step. Spotting the signs of trouble is the second. Providing methods to cope is the next.
Just like adults, young people also have their own share of stress to deal with on a daily basis. Issues that may seem petty to adults are quite serious to adolescents. What stresses these adolescents such as friendships, peer pressure, appearances, doing well in school, relationships, and meeting their parents’ expectations – to name a few, may not be the same worries that stress adults, but they are just as real and intense. In addition, today’s children and youth are also exposed to more family related stress than previous generations. The dynamics of today’s family is totally different than that of generations past where children were kept completely in the dark as to family matters. Today’s children and youth seem to be pulled more and more into the family’s problems plaguing them with stress they should not have to deal with at such young age. In other words, according to Dr. Joyce Urban, BSN, RN, BA, MA, LMHC of Urban Counseling in Ocala “these adolescents are having to deal with adult problems while not having the tools to deal with them.”
But young people are not “wired” yet, at this stage in their lives to be able to effectively deal with stress so they react differently than adults. According to the National Institute of Health, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is all because of the brain. A number of studies have been conducted using advanced imaging tools to be able to see exactly how an adolescent’s brain functions, and the findings were very surprising. Scientists discovered that important parts of the brain – regions that govern impulse control, judgment, and decision-making – are still developing until about age 25 when there is a cross-over of left side of the brain to right side, so they cannot grasp the consequences of their actions.
Thus, it is up to the adults around these adolescents to pick up on signs of mental distress. Although it would be more likely for the parents to tune into changes in behavior to cue them in that something is up, other people such as family members, teachers, and coaches who are around the these adolescents on a regular basis should also be keen to noticing any behavioral changes and identify any potential problems. With all the recent school shootings and students making threats to school mates and teachers, there should be reason for concern.
Somewhere along the line people around the individuals making the threats or carrying out the shootings, missed on important signs of distress. It is quite possible, that should these individuals had the opportunity to open up and work with either their parents or even with professional counselors who could have provided guidance and support, the issues could have been avoided.
Dr. Urban, explains that as children transition to adolescence, conflicts are likely to arise between parents and these individuals who are not quite adults but yet are not children any longer. Thus, parents have to try to understand and not just listen, but really hear what their children are saying. Further, not just hear what is verbally being communicated, but also understand body language and attitude. Parents must exercise active communication skills. For instance, pick up on signs such as observing if your adolescent has become isolated when he or she was very social in the past. Also, take notice if all of a sudden he or she starts wearing long sleeves all the time. This could be a sign of drug abuse, burning, or cutting him or herself. Another important sign to take notice of is if your adolescent has been down and depressed but all of a sudden he or she bounces back seemingly happy and bubbly, as they start giving away their personal belongings. This could be a sign of having suicidal thoughts.
Additionally, the American Psychological Association offers parents and caretakers some tips in recognizing possible signs of distress in young people. For instance, watching out for negative changes in behavior, such as withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy, complaining about school more than usual, sleeping or eating too much or too little, and frequently acting moody or irritable. Also, noticing a significant avoidance of conversation with parents or switching old time friends for new ones, could be a sign that something is wrong with your child. Paying attention to all other non-verbal signs is important as well, such as your child “feeling sick” too often while in school, i.e. experiencing frequent headaches or stomachaches even after receiving a clean bill of health by the pediatrician.
It is critical that these changes in behavior be detected early so that appropriate action can be taken. Although, professionals in the mental health field are the only ones fully trained to detect even the slightest possible signs of mental distress, parents should still be looking out for possible early signs of mental health issues. Regardless of what the social implications might have been in the past about receiving mental health counseling and assistance, it is imperative that these adolescents get help as soon as possible. Unfortunately, due to the stigma associated with receiving mental health treatment, a lot of cases go untreated.
Contrary to popular belief, seeking mental health assistance does not mean you are “crazy” and need to see a psychiatrist to prescribe you antidepressants or other mood altering medications. Mental health treatment also includes visits to a licensed mental health counselor who can help you deal with and work through any issues that may be causing anxiety or depression. No one should try and tackle any mental health issue on his or her own and the real “winner” is the one who seeks help and not the one who for fear of being labeled ends up harming himself/herself or others.
Raising awareness of the importance of mental health and taking away the stigma that has been attached to it for so long is critical. Today’s youth will be tomorrow’s leaders and making sure these young adults receive the mental health assistance they need, will have a positive impact in the future of this country.