What to look for in your child’s mental health

Published on March 17th, 2022 by Nancy Humphrey.

Keeping an eye on your child’s mental health is a good idea, especially with the rising numbers of adolescent and teen suicides. Mental and physical health are treated differently in our society, “but you can’t separate the two,” said Heather Kreth, PsyD, assistant professor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Psychology. Here are some tips for monitoring your child’s mental health.

* It’s a myth that asking someone if they have suicidal thoughts will cause them to be suicidal. If you notice a change in your child’s mood lasting more than a day, or a sustained change in mood or sleeping habits and social engagement, talk to your child. Ask how they’re doing, and if they have had any suicidal thoughts.  “We need to talk more about depression and mental health to reduce the stigma around it,” Kreth said.

* If your child makes a statement like, “I wish I wasn’t here,” or “It doesn’t matter anyway,” think about what they’re trying to communicate to you.

* If your child is depressed, never ask, “Why are you so depressed? You have everything you could possibly want.” Kreth says you’d never say to a child diagnosed with cancer, “Why do you have cancer? You have such a nice life.”

* When your child comes to you and says something like, “I’m really sad. I’m not doing OK,” validate that and show compassion. Children whose thoughts are validated and supported are more likely to stay safe.

* Look for signs of self-injuring. If you see evidence, ask your child about it.

* Secure over-the-counter and prescription medications and firearms in the home. Keep firearms in a safe, locked place and store ammunition separately. If there are firearms in the home, there’s about a 50% increase in risk for a successful suicide attempt. “People tend to think that children don’t know where their firearms are hidden, but they’re often very aware,” Kreth said.