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Tackle mental health issues with your children
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds, behind only car accidents. Sandra Hanington and Eric Windeler founded The Jack Project after their son, Jack, committed suicide during his first year of university. Their goal is to raise money and spread awareness about youth mental health issues. We spoke with Hanington about things to keep in mind when talking to your teen about their own mental health.
Mental health and young adults
Teens in Canada are asked to decide their future careers at the age of 17, which involves making tough life choices and seeing them through. Combine that with starting university, the pressure to get good grades and possibly moving away from home and it can be a lot for a young mind to handle. "It's like having the rug pulled out from under you," says Hanington. "The onset of mental health problems is greatest right at that age of transition."
Hanington points out that, for many young adults, the first year of college is the first year of living alone, without the day-to-day scrutiny and emotional support of a parental figure. Any and all information about your child's well-being has to come from them. "All of a sudden, parents go from using their own senses to relying on secondhand information," she says.
Depression and other mental-health issues don't always come with symptoms that can be recognized, especially if your child no longer lives at home. Signs that your child is struggling may not even be noticeable when they do come home.
Hanington notes that it wasn't until after Jack's suicide that she learned Jack had been skipping classes, withdrawing from friends and losing weight. Other signs of mental-health issues include changes in sleeping patterns, crying for no apparent reason, continued fatigue or loss of energy and persistent or recurring headaches.
Talking to your teen
The most important thing to do is to start the conversation early, says Hanington. "It's not the optimal time to start inquiring after your kids' mental health when you think they're in trouble or they're far away from you and you can't probe deeply," she says.
Hanington says that mental health is not unlike physical health, in that if a parent sees their child sniffling, it is natural to offer remedies. Hanington says parents should try to make it just as natural to ask children how they're feeling mentally on a regular basis. "It's just unacceptable to have silence on this subject," she says. She advises opening a dialogue with your kid and being unrelenting. If you don't finish the conversation today, let them know you're coming back to it.
It's a good idea to remind your child that mental health fluctuates; just as they may lose weight or gain weight, they also have good days and bad days mentally. Hanington suggests having a conversation with your child about recognizing the signs of mental illness and where they might look for help if they're feeling overwhelmed.
Lastly, if you fear your child is contemplating suicide, Hanington's advice is simple. Ask your child outright if they are considering harming themselves. If they are, get them help immediately. "If you're that worried about your child, your next move is to get in a car or get on a plane," she says. And if you have to pull them out of school —do it. "In the overall scheme of things, that one year or term they'll miss means nothing," she says. "It's hard work, but … we do what it takes to help our children."
We have more tips on talking to your kids about tough subjects. Plus advice on how to calm your scared child.
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