1. Talk with your teen.
“Don’t put them on the defensive by saying ‘I think you have a mental illness,’ but express your concern, your compassion, and listen to them,” says Ken Duckworth, M.D., Medical Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Saying something as simple as “I’m concerned about you,” is a good way to start, then follow-up with an observation. For example, instead of saying to your teen, “I think you’re depressed,” you could say, “I notice you’ve been sleeping a lot more lately; what’s that about?” Or, if your child waves off negative behavior by saying, “I just wasn’t thinking about what I was doing,” you might say something like “Maybe we could see someone who could give you strategies to help you be less impulsive.”
Whether your child’s issue is depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, mood swings, or another mental health problem, make your message one of hope and help: “Maybe we can consult an expert who really understands this problem, and has experience working with teens like you who can help you find some solutions.”
2. Consult your child’s doctor.
Your pediatrician or family doctor may be able to refer you to a mental health expert in your area, and can also rule out any physical causes of your child’s symptoms. “Thyroid conditions, mononucleosis, or other chronic infections can cause changes in a child’s or teen’s mood, energy level and ability to think clearly and you want to rule that out first,” says Lloyd Sederer, M.D., author of The Family Guide to Mental Health Care.
3. Confide in someone you trust.
Since mental health issues can run in families, consider whether you have a family member who sought help for themselves or their child whom you can trust for discreet advice. They may be able to refer you to an expert, reading material, or other resources that have helped their family.
4. Find resources in your area.
You can find a list of mental health professionals in your area who work specifically with children and teens by logging onto the website of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Also check out the website of NAMI to find the NAMI office closest to your home. NAMI can lead you to many other resources in your area, including support groups, and they offer a helpline.
5. Consider family therapy, too.
When one person in a family has a mental illness, everyone in the family is affected. In addition to individual therapy for your teen, family therapy can help all members of your family understand a mental illness better, improve relationships between family members, and learn the best ways to help your loved one learn to manage a mental illness. Family therapy is often short-term (less than six months), but can produce long-term, even permanent, improvements in the way family members communicate and in how problems are solved in your family. For more information about family therapy or to find a family therapist near you, log onto the website of the American Association For Marriage and Family Therapy.
Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.