Nearly 14% of adolescents struggle with depression, a mental health condition often compounded by stress, poor diet, lack of sleep and other environmental factors. September, also known as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, is a time parents and families can educate themselves on strategies and resources available to help maintain good mental health. Here are common signs and behaviors that may signify a potential problem:
- Irregular Sleeping Patterns: Sleeping too much or too little is often linked to depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. It’s also considered an independent risk factor of suicide for people across every age group.
- Isolation: Withdrawing from friends, family, everyday activities and social events can be a strong indicator of suicidal ideations. Encouraging socialization, even if it’s one-on-one, can help deter suicidal thoughts or behaviors from escalating. It’s crucial to offer support to determine if a child is considering self-harm or needs help addressing their feelings.
- Mood Changes: Some children may act out-of-character, showcasing erratic highs or lows. This can include extreme happiness, deep sadness or prolonged anger. Emotional and behavioral problems often indicate a much bigger issue. It’s imperative to approach the child in a calm, supportive manner to find a resolution.
- Physical Pain: Because physical and mental health go hand-in-hand, chronic depression often manifests into symptoms of bodily pain. Be alert with those who complain of headaches, stomach aches, unexplainable lethargy and other physical ailments.
- Poor School Performance: Some associate mental illness with an inability to function, but many suffer in silence with day-to-day responsibilities at home and school. Pay close attention to children who exhibit a robotic demeanor or have difficulty focusing. Confusion, indecisiveness and restlessness are all considered risk factors for mental illness.
- Reckless Behavior: When dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts, safety is an ongoing concern. Children are likely to engage in dangerous activities putting themselves directly in harm’s way. This frequently coincides with violent mood swings and suicidal tendencies.
- Self-harm: Self-inflicted wounds such as cuts, scratches and burns can signify one’s struggle to process or express emotion. It’s a severe coping mechanism in which physical pain provides short-term relief. Parents may notice small wounds on areas such as the wrists, arms or thighs. A child may wear baggy or more conservative clothing to cover injuries.
- Self-loathing: It’s common for teens to compare themselves to others, especially in the age of social media. But it can become an obsessive behavior causing them to be overly critical. This can manifest as negative self-talk in which they constantly belittle their appearance or personal accomplishments.
- Weight Changes: When dealing with a mental health issue, children may experience dramatic weight gain or weight loss. A lack of interest in food or consistent overeating have been linked to several conditions including depression and anxiety disorders.
Despite general warning signs, it’s important to remember that mental illness is an individual experience. Some children may exhibit multiple symptoms, while others may show none. During the first few weeks of school, be mindful of the child’s behavior, language and other non-verbal cues. It’s a critical time that may require special attention and additional guidance.
If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24-hours a day, seven days a week. All conversations are confidential.
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About the Author: Dr. Kristyn Stewart, DO, is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.