Be ready for those moments when your child says something to you about how they’re feeling. It’s important to let them know you are there for them. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

When Lisa Lowery, MD, recently participated in a panel of community leaders and local teens to talk about challenges that youth have faced during the pandemic, a recurring theme emerged.

There is a resounding call for more support to help those struggling with mental health issues.

“Children are great actors,” said Dr. Lowery, section chief of child and adolescent health at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “We must always be mindful of that. Children often pretend they are fine when they are not. And, the fact is, many children are struggling with mental health challenges.

“In the past 17 years, as long as I have been in this position, I have never seen a crisis this bad,” Dr. Lowery continued. “There’s been so much going on during the pandemic—changes in routines in school, at home, in our social lives.”

Parents often say, “I want my child to tell me everything.”

“We must always be mindful of that—kids don’t always tell us everything,” she said. “They may not say how they feel. Remember when you were a child. Did you tell your parents everything?”

Be open, be direct

Even in the best relationships, children and teens tend to keep emotions to themselves, Dr. Lowery said.

“Be open for those one or two minutes when your child does say something to you about how they are feeling,” she said. “The biggest thing is to let them know that you are there for them—always.”

Knowing that you are there for them, kids may be more likely to tell you when they’re feeling anxious, depressed, worried, or even suicidal.

“And remember, it’s OK to ask,” Dr. Lowery said.

One of the best things to say to a child or teen who may be facing suicidal thoughts: Ask them outright if they’re having these kinds of thoughts.

Be direct.

“We are seeing sharp increases in suicide rates among youth,” Dr. Lowery said. “Along with that, rising rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. It’s a mental health tsunami.”

Possible signs of suicidal ideation may include:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Changes in choice of friends
  • Tendency to isolate
  • Withdrawing from family, friends or community
  • Admission of suicidal thoughts on social media
  • Giving away possessions
  • Risky behavior
  • Self-harming
  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Writing and talking about death

Help is available

“Don’t hesitate to reach out,” Dr. Lowery said. “Kent County has excellent resources and there are national suicide hotlines such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline as well.

“Your doctor can be a resource,” she said. “Many schools have resources. Most of all, remind the child that you are there for them, that you won’t judge them. Open that door.”

The behavioral health team at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital includes pediatric psychiatrists, psychologists, neuropsychologists and behavioral medicine specialists.

Team members provide hospital-based and outpatient services through a variety of clinics.

When you talk to your children, acknowledge their fears and feelings, Dr. Lowery said.

Let them know you care and will not leave them.

Offer support and help them connect to resources.

Don’t interrupt with your own stories when they share theirs.

Focus on listening without judgment.

“Remind the child that mental health issues can be like any other health issue,” Dr. Lowery said. “If you have asthma, would you not use an inhaler? Treat mental health issues just as you would any other health issue.

“Therapists are trained to problem-solve. If there is a fear of taking medication, talk that through,” she said.

Make sure that your child is getting adequate sleep. Exercise, even going for a walk, can be helpful.

Mental health issues can present differently in teens than they do in adults, and differently in young children, too.

“A small child may express anxiety by being clingy,” Dr. Lowery said. “They may have more tantrums. Or maybe they complain of a headache or stomachache.”

Even with the rise in mental health issues among children, Dr. Lowery said she remains hopeful.

Conversations about mental health issues help eliminate stigmas that too often come with an admission of emotional struggles.

“Look for that meaningful moment,” Dr. Lowery added. “It’s a cumulative process. Approach your child with grace and consistency, so that when they need help, you’ll be there.”