Nearly one in five Americans have a mental illness. In addition, suicide is the leading cause of death in teens in Utah. These are two reasons why this month it’s important to be aware of our mental health, and the mental health of our children. Mental Health Awareness Month should help us to talk openly about our mental health and how we can work together to overcome the stigma around mental health.
The World Health Organization said it best when they defined health as a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being, and not just the absence of infirmity or a disease.
“Mental health is about overall well-being. It is about connecting with family and friends, engaging in fun and enjoyable activities, taking care of our bodies by having good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and doing physical activities. As mental healthcare providers, we do not separate mental and physical health. It is all health and well-being, said Dr. Annie Deming, Child Psychologist and Clinical Manager of Primary Children’s Hospital’s Center for Counseling.
Those who experience physical illness are at greater risk of having mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression. It is all inter-related. Good physical health can be protective of someone’s mental well-being, just as good mental health can contribute to good physical well-being.
There has been a stigma that addressing or openly talking about mental health is a sign of weakness, character flaw, or poor parenting. Some have even said that it's something that somebody should just be able to snap out of anytime they can. That mentality, when not addressed correctly, leads people to stay quiet and not address a real and serious health problem. It also leads to people being unwilling to ask for help. Sometimes, it can even lead to parents not noticing their own or their child’s mental health challenges.
Talk to someone about stressors, your daily life, and know this is actually strength. Reach out to loved ones if you notice that you have started to lose interest in your usual activities or have been sad for several days in the past week or two. Reach out for support if you feel anxious and tense all of the time. If you notice signs in your own child, reach out to your pediatrician just as you would if your child had a physical illness.
“Allowing yourself and your child to talk about distressing emotions will actually make you stronger in the long run. It is natural to feel many different feelings throughout each day: sadness, irritation, happiness, joy, energy, and tiredness. When those feelings arise, pay attention to them. Learn from them. Acknowledge them. And at the same time, know that you (or your child) is NOT the emotion. You and they are a person who is having an emotion. Learning to tolerate both positive and distressing emotions without making the situation worse are two of the best skills for building resilience.” It is important to help your child feel comfortable and confident labeling and experiencing their emotions, while teaching them how to regulate.
There has also been new feelings and emotions that have been created by the yearlong pandemic. Especially now as we see mask mandates lifting, businesses allowing less restrictions, and the CDC saying that vaccinated people can return to normal.
“Some of us might feel nervous no longer wearing the mask, or be hesitant to spend time with friends. This is okay! It is important to be patient with ourselves (and each other) as we adjust to yet another major change in how we walk through each day,” Dr. Deming said. “We need to be patient and kind with ourselves and with each as this has been a difficult and even traumatizing time for most of us.”
Dr. Deming said that if you are not completely ready to return to normal – go slow, and allow your children to go slow as well. If your children have been attending in-person school, they are used to wearing a mask all day. This might be difficult for some kids to shift away from, and that is okay. This also means it takes a level of compassion and understanding from everyone. If someone sees another still wearing a mask when they don’t feel they need it, don’t call them out. We do not know what that person experienced: maybe they are a child who feels safer with a mask because it became normal for them. Maybe they or a loved one became very sick due to COVID, or even lost someone to COVID. The biggest thing to remember is that compassion and kindness is always the right first step.
“This will take time, we have to remember that over 500,000 people have died from this pandemic in this country alone. That is a lot of hurting loved ones and we need compassion,” Dr. Deming said.
If you want to speak to someone, you can call Intermountain’s Behavioral Health Navigation Line at 833-442-2211. The Behavioral Health Navigation Service is a new service provided by Intermountain and designed to help the community find the resources that they need.
The Behavioral Health Navigation services is a singular phone number where you can call in and speak with caregivers in our organization to be directed to the right service, and as needed scheduled with an appointment, or referred to Intermountain’s Behavioral Health Connect Care, which is a new service virtual service working to address needs for people or the loved ones in real time.
If your child is the one you are concerned about, be open and talk about it. Talk to their teachers, the school counselor, and their pediatrician. With more open communication, we can reduce stigma and get our families to a much healthier place.