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5 tips to help Tampa Bay parents with their teen’s mental health

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Editor’s Note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, resources are available to help. Please see the information below.

There is a youth mental health crisis in America and Tampa Bay is not immune.

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In late 2021, the US Surgeon General said young people faced devastating mental health impacts as COVID-19 swept the country. A peer-reviewed study released earlier this month found that suicide-related emergency room visits among children and young adults increased fivefold nationwide from 2011 to 2020. Last year, a federal report found stated that 4 out of 10 high school students were consistently sad or hopeless.

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a public health advisory said some scientists believe the trends are partly because young people are more willing to discuss mental health issues openly. But other researchers, he said, point to growing use of digital media, rising academic pressure, limited access to mental health care, and alcohol and drug use as some of the reasons for the crisis.

Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties had an estimated population of nearly 350,000 youth ages 10 to 19 in 2021, according to US Census Bureau data.

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As local parents grapple with the crisis and seek to boost their teens’ well-being, Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology, neuropsychology, and social work at Johns Hopkins All Childrens Hospital in St. Petersburg, offered tips on how to proactively address issues of mental health among adolescents.

Here is his advice.

What’s the difference between normal teenage stress and a serious mental health problem?

Stress, anxiety and mood swings are normal for everyone, including teenagers. But when such feelings keep teens from engaging in daily life, that’s an indicator of a potential mental health condition, said Katzenstein, who is also co-director of the hospital’s Center for Behavioral Health.

Seeing a therapist can help clarify what’s going on, she said.

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Common teen stressors include pressures to do well in school, bullying, family issues like financial instability, busy social calendars, overexposure to social media and poor sleep habits, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

What should parents do on phones and social media?

Ask teens to put their phones down an hour or two before bedtime, Katzenstein said. Keep devices in another room to limit nighttime distractions.

Participation in outdoor activities can be extremely protective against mental health problems caused by excessive use of electronics, he added. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies have found links between high levels of social media use and symptoms of anxiety or depression.

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Jennifer Katzenstein
Jennifer Katzenstein [ Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital ]

How can you tell if a teenager’s mental health is deteriorating?

Watch for changes in behavior like appetite, sleep patterns or the amount of time they spend alone in their room, Katzenstein said.

Watch for lower frustration tolerance and increased irritability and nervousness, she added. Refusal to go to school is another cause for concern.

I believe we’re seeing more crisis situations where parents (take kids) to the emergency room, Katzenstein said, because we’re not intervening sooner or acknowledging things sooner. … As we let time pass, these symptoms will get worse.

How can families deal with mental health before it turns into a crisis?

Three or four times a week, parents should take up to 10 minutes without the TV blaring and phones in hand to talk with their kids about how life is going, Katzenstein said. This can happen while you’re driving, walking, or hanging out in the living room.

Don’t ask 100 questions, he said. Give your child the space to open up. It’s an easy way to identify behavioral changes.

Tell me… Tell me a little about your day, Katzenstein said. Who do you have lunch with? What happens when you go to this class?

Parents should mostly remain silent.

We need our teenagers to respond. They will fill that silence with something.

How do you know if a teenager is having suicidal ideation?

Watch out for teens giving away personal items and changes in behavior like avoiding friends or family, Katzenstein said.

Keep your home safe by locking up your firearms and medications, even Tylenol, she said.

If teens are expressing suicidal thoughts like, I wish I was dead, it’s time to seek help from a mental health provider, he said. If they are having suicidal plans or have attempted suicide, seek emergency intervention.

Call 911 if someone is physically injured, such as bleeding from self-cutting, he said. The national suicide prevention hotline, 988, offers free crisis counseling to those thinking of harming themselves.

I need help?

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.

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