We inadvertently pay far less attention to the mental health of our children than we do to their physical health. This is not by design of course; no good parent ignores the health of their child. I think that for the most part, it’s due to a misunderstanding of what compromised mental health looks like and an inability to distinguish between normal adolescent angst and something a lot more dangerous.
We live in a society of pressure: pressure to be popular, pressure to succeed, pressure to achieve, pressure to be perfect, pressure to be productive, pressure to please other people, pressure to look a certain way. This pressure can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health issues when people inevitably fall short, especially in adolescents who are hard wired to be high achievers and perfectionists.
Sometimes it’s obvious when a child or adolescent is experiencing mental distress, but other times it isn’t. It’s hard to detect what you can’t see, especially if you don’t know what to look for, even if you are the most attentive of parents. Sometimes the changes in behavior are so subtle and gradual that they are not immediately noticeable. And by the time they are recognizable, a full-blown mental disorder has developed.
Anxiety doesn’t look like what I thought it would. My daughter had anxiety preceding her eating disorder, as is common in many cases, but I had no idea that what I was seeing was anxiety. I truly wish that I had known then what I know now, because I would have taken her for treatment to help her regulate her emotions and acquire coping strategies.
I imagined anxiety as something big; as something that you can easily spot, something with obvious symptoms. I thought that is would be more glaring, more overt, more blatant. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it just looks like a kid who is worried or who has social issues or who can’t sleep or who has a stomach-ache when it’s time to go to school. What kid doesn’t have these issues at one time or another? How do we know as parents when to seek help for our children? That is the million-dollar question.
The only answer that I have is that it takes a village. Everyone who parents and works with children and adolescents needs to educate themselves on the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. I think of it like this: I was on a flight from Baltimore to New York when the woman in the seat next to me turned to me and said, “You’re the woman who writes the blog about eating disorders, right?” I asked her how she knew that, and she said that she recognized me from the photo that appears with my blog. So even though we had never met, and she did not know me personally, she was able to identify me. If parents, teachers, coaches, etc. all educated themselves on the signs of mental distress, they would hopefully be able to identify it when they saw it.
Furthermore, and this is important, if you see something, say something. A friend of mine told me that after her daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder, she called the homeroom teacher to keep her apprised of the situation. My friend was really upset when the teacher said, “I had a feeling that she had an eating disorder, but I wasn’t sure whether or not to call you.” When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Always.
Also, not to sound too old or anything, but I think that in general, we are less present with our kids these days. Yes, we spend time in the same room as them, but how often are we looking at our screens instead of speaking and listening to them? How often do we bring our work home with us? I am just as at fault as the next person, so I am not pointing fingers because, you know, glass houses and all. I am just pointing out that by not giving our kids the full attention that they deserve, we may be missing things that can lead to some bad places.
A big part of the village are the doctors out there who regularly examine our kids. It seems to me that more often than not, they do not conduct any type of examination beyond the physical. In this day and age, when psychiatrist prescribed medication is more the norm than the exception, I really don’t get it. It’s obvious that mental health totally parallels physical health. Both get worse if left untreated, both affect the quality of a person’s life and compromise functionality, both cause pain and suffering, and both have the capacity to become life threatening. And yet, despite all of this, for the most part, pediatricians and family doctors do not include mental health screening as part of their examinations. They rarely ask questions that evaluate a patient’s anxiety level, probe whether there is depression, or assess for other mental issues, despite the proven link between mind and body. I understand that they were not properly trained to do so; but when training is inadequate, and doctors are missing critical diagnoses, they can just do what the rest of us do when we want information and open a web browser.
And speaking of web browsers, do me a favor right now and look up “symptoms of depression”, “symptoms of anxiety”, “symptoms of eating disorders”, and “symptoms of suicidal thoughts and behaviors”. Consider it like CPR and the Heimlich Maneuver; you never know when you may need to use it to save a life.