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Counselor says parents and teachers should be on the lookout for mental health issues in kids

Counselor Tiffany Stevens
Tiffany Stevens
Counselor Tiffany Stevens

Chicago-based counselor Tiffany Stevens, head of Grateful Growth Counseling, spoke with reporter Maureen McKinney. School-related pressures can be a trigger for anxiety and other mental health issues.

This is an edited, excerpted version of that conversation.

I wanted to ask if there is a mental health crisis among teens? And, if so, why would that be? 

Yeah, there us a mental health crisis among young people because there are so many different pressures, right? There's social media. We have academic, economic insecurity for some people. And there are tons of other reasons why there may be some mental health things happening. I think one of the big ones that we don't talk about enough, is the substance use, and substance abuse, specifically with marijuana in young people.

And has that been increasing? 

It has increased over the last couple of years. And it's increasing because, like I said, with the social media pressure, academic pressure; we talk about also the social pressure in our own schools and our own peer groups, that is huge. And then, to be honest, many of the companies actually target young people. They target young people in terms of flavored products, colorful packaging, crafty social media, influencing marketing, product placement, so all of those things contribute to the substance use. And I would also say that some of it may be contributed to the music and the things that children see in the media.

Can you tell me about a recent survey that showed the increase in students having mental health issues? And why might that be?

Yeah, so there are several surveys, but there's the Monitoring the Future study that's happening. That's an ongoing study conducted by the University of Michigan. And it's really helping to provide data on trends and drug use among American adolescents. And the death study, for instance, has been going on for over 40 years, because it's continuously rising. And then there's also a large-scale survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the United States, and (it) is basically just to collect data on drug use among people, young people, including adolescents and teens, because they're such as they're on the rise.

I don't know if you have it in front of you. But if you do, can you tell the listeners a little bit about what those surveys showed.

So those surveys just show the trend and how, at one point, there was substance abuse happening. And now it's becoming more frequent. And we're also seeing different consequences of drug use, because drugs are not – I don't know that they were ever safe. But when I was younger, it was considered to be like a plant, this drug that was the safest of all of the drugs, but now, the different strains, and people are doing different things to them. So it's causing more psychotic breaks and things like that. Substance abuse, psychotic episodes (are) what we've been seeing.

And so these surveys will basically highlight some of that information. And it gives us data that's conducted face-to face and on websites. And so it's just including some new (information), but it basically highlights some of the key findings in terms of the age, the type of drugs that's being used. And like I said, the consequences, or the effects of those drugs being used, especially with younger people.

What are the signs of mental health issues that parents should look for?

I will say some of the things that parents should look for are changes in behavior. Look for significant changes in behavior such as sudden withdrawal from family and friends, extreme mood swings and increased irritability. There may also be a change in academic performance, so the academic performance may have a decline. So if grades are starting to drop, if you know they're skipping school frequently, they may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. Maybe they're changing and they're eating or sleeping. You know, that's something to pay attention to.

Also just making sure that parents are vigilant, keeping out the eye for drugs and alcohol use or things that you may find around the house smell of alcohol in (their) breath. And then social isolation because it's so common for teens to want to hang out with their friends, when they kind of withdraw back to thinking about the change in behavior, paying attention to those things.

And then there also may be headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, which can sometimes be related to mental health, and then self harm is big. And any talks of hopelessness, loneliness, suicide, in any risky behavior. And then there are a few more, right, but those are some of I would say the common things to look for, or some of the things that typically change sooner rather than later in young people where you can catch it,

What are some of the types of mental health struggles students can have?

Some of it is depression, some of it is anxiety. And then there's also imposter syndrome, right? Because especially now there are people that have access to the internet, they may feel like they should be in one particular place where they're not because they're judging it on something that's not even real, some other may be being bullied. That's a huge one that can trigger some different mental health concerns, relationships, and younger people in terms of intimate partner relationships, friendships, those are really important that can also trigger something – so illnesses, but usually we see in our young people depression, anxiety, as some adjustment disorders.

Why does school start bringing about anxiety for students?

You know, a lot of times just like for older people, or adults, when we don't know what to expect, sometimes we can come up with so many different scenarios of what could or could not happen, what may or may not happen. And that can cause some anxiety, but thinking about the school pressure, so students may be worried about making new friends, fitting in or being accepted by their peers.

Social anxiety can be especially common for those starting at a new school or transitioning to a higher grade level, right. So from grade school to high school, academic pressure. So there's usually an expectation, and most families have academic performance homework, test grades, so many of those things can lead to anxiety. And just the fear that they won't meet those academic standards.

Especially for maybe like, I'll give an example for a junior in high school, like being able to make sure you maintain things to make sure you get into the college. And it can also be as simple as the change in a routine, right. So going from a relaxed summer schedule. So a more structured school schedule can be really tough for some students, and that can trigger anxiety.

And then some other concerns would be like bullying, performance anxiety, being separated from families. And that's not even including the extracurricular activities, right, like so in addition to academic students, some students may have anxiety related to extracurricular activities, or sports commitments.

And then again, going back to what I've talked about before, it's that peer and social comparison that some young people deal with. So it's just important to note that not all students experience school-related anxiety. And they may experience it at different levels. But those are just some things for parents and teachers and school staff to be aware of, that these things may trigger anxiety, and that some young people could benefit from having a little extra support and resources to help manage and cope with this anxiety.

What are some tips for navigating the mental health crisis with students for parents, teachers, other people who deal with students?

So supporting a young person and navigating life and maintaining mental wellness is crucial for their overall well being and development, right. And so, open communication is big. So if adults can begin to create, will continue to create a safe, nonjudgmental environment where young people feel comfortable discussing their thoughts and feelings, that's huge. And so just being a really good listener, and trying to give them space in that open communication. So whatever their truth is, I'm trying to honor that and not try to defend or deflect or anything like that. And so just knowing that active listening can go a really long way.

So pay close attention to what they're saying. And when you can validate those emotions, give empathy and understanding, encourage healthy habits, watch what you model, right. And so you don't want to tell a child to do one thing, and they see you doing something else. Because many children are not really, really listening to you, as much as they are paying attention to what you're modeling. For them. The routine helps. So having a healthy routine, setting realistic expectations can help. And just making sure that you educate yourself about mental health, and that you have those conversations, and be patient.

And always, always, always, always, if you notice signs of serious mental health issues, or there may be it may not be that serious, but you want to seek the help before it gets there. So seek professional help from a therapist or a counselor or psychiatrist. And I think one of the concerns that come up with young people that I didn't mention before with depression and anxiety is ADHD or ADD, that's a huge omr for young people too.

And so just stay plugged in, you know, a lot of parents are busy. But we have to carve out that time to be attentive and be mindful and have those conversations with our young people. Supporting a young person's mental wellness is an ongoing process.

I want to make sure that I just talk about suicide awareness, because this is September in a suicide awareness month. But paying attention can go a long way. Because not everybody, not every child has the ability to formulate words to tell you how they're feeling. And so just paying attention, asking questions, being present

.Also, I'm trying to find a sensitive way to say this, but making sure that you don't miss those signs. Because you're saying it's not my child, my child couldn't be doing drugs or my child couldn't be doing this. So just make sure that you are not missing the signs because you're unaware, or because you're normalizing behavior or because there's a communication barrier or because you're afraid if I get my child help there's such a stigma around it and I don't want people to judge them or label them. And like I said, sometimes hectic schedules can make it challenging for parents. It's been quality time, but we have to find ways. So I just want to make sure that your listeners are not the parents that are in denial or they don't have the information because there are resources available. There are resources available.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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