How To Talk To Your Teen About Their Mental Health

Between 2008 and 2018 the suicide rates for youths age 10-24 in the state of Georgia have almost doubled. In fact, for some minority groups, the number of deaths by suicide did double. According to the CDC, the suicide rates for African American youth ages 10 to 24 went from an average of 31 to 77, a number not explained by changes in population in Georgia. This makes suicide the third most common cause of death for all youths in Georgia.

With youth suicide being such a large issue in Georgia, how should parents and guardians open the door for conversations with their teens about mental health?

Cathy Dothard has been a school counselor at Northeast High School for 21 years and has been named Bibb County’s Counselor Of The Year for 2021.

“Parents can start just by talking about some of the current issues going on asking their child how they feel about it,” said Dothard.

In a phone interview on Friday, Dothard discussed how important it is to overcome the stigma surrounding mental health, which can be a barrier to having a conversation between parents and children about it. Many parents may experience embarrassment in talking about mental health because they don’t realize how prevalent mental health issues are.

Dothard explained that she understood how people might avoid this conversation because they’re afraid of talking about the wrong things.

“They don’t really know the right things to say… or if they’re asking the right questions.”

So what are the right questions? What is the best way to talk to teens about mental health as a guardian or parent?

According to Dothard, a good first step is to make it a habit to have open and honest communication with teens about other aspects of life. Ensuring that youth feel like they can come to their guardians about any struggle they are having, be that social, emotional, or physical.

Guardians can also talk about current issues they think might be impacting the mental health of their teens as an invitation to begin the conversation, Dothard said. Examples of things that would be currently impacting the mental health of teens would be the current pandemic or the protests going on around the country related to police brutality.

Not only should parents ask teens about their mental health, but they should be ready to be open in the conversation about what they [the parents or guardians] may have gone through. Dothard explained that it is good for youth to have mental health issues normalized as something that every person will likely experience at some point in their life.

Dothard said that Bibb County has plenty of resources available for those who might need more guidance on how to discuss mental health with their teens.

Dothard also recommended parents talk to their child’s doctor or pediatrician if they are worried about a child’s mental health. In some cases, it may also be beneficial to speak with a faith leader a parent trusts if they are not in a position to speak with a pediatrician or doctor about the subject. However, Dothard said that oftentimes the best course of action is to involve a medical professional who has knowledge on mental health.

Something else that is important regardless of if a teen is actively struggling with their mental health is showing them good coping mechanisms for when they may be experiencing stress. Dothard recommended seeing what a teen already enjoys doing that put the child in a positive mental space and encouraging that. This could include drawing, music, or even writing in a journal.

Finally, Dothard said that the most important thing was that parents and guardians reassure their teens of their support as well as remember to listen once their child has opened up about their mental health.

“Really, really listening,” Dothard said, “Really, really listening to see what your child has to say if they are communicating to you. Not just judging or prejudging and making it an argumentative type of thing.”

Resources for parents and teens in Bibb County are available at the Bibb County School District website here: link.

Tips for coping with the stressors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here: link.