As a mother, May always reminds me of the conclusion of the school year and the excitement, uncertainty, expectation, and success that my girls experienced. This season represents milestones for our children as they move into new phases in their life. It’s such a frantic, hopeful period and, depending on the day, I’m either relieved to be years distant from those memories—or I miss them tremendously.
I know many parents are in the thick of those experiences and emotions right now, managing the opportunities and hurdles that are a part of this period. But for families with a child experiencing a mental health crisis, these challenges are all the more complicated.
While it is tempting to think that mental health difficulties are prompted by the challenges of adulthood, the reality is that half emerge by the age of 14—and three quarters by age 24. In reality, one in five teenagers in the United States age 13 to 18 live with a mental health disorder. Despite this prevalence, the average delay between the development of symptoms and treatment is around a decade. That means most of our young people who are dealing with their mental health will do so for years without receiving the treatment they need.
I know how hard it is to be the parent of a child in this situation—I’ve been there. My daughter Stefani, who most of you know as Lady Gaga, began to deal with anxiety and depression when she was a teenager and, as an adult, she’s talked publicly about her diagnosis with PTSD and her mental health in general.
As she and our family have navigated these hurdles, I’ve learnt so much that I wish I knew sooner. So in honour of Mental Health Awareness Month, here are a few suggestions I wish I could share with my younger self.
Not listening so that you can try to cure the problem—which I think is often our tendency as parents—but listening so that you can understand and validate their emotions. It’s such a simple action, but it can help indicate to your child that you care, that you are there for them, and that you aren’t going to condemn them. According to our study and the many, many discussions my team and I have routinely with young people, that last aspect is crucial.
Youth are like anybody else—they don’t want to open up or seek support if they feel like they could be judged. So try listening—and sharing. Be honest about your own concerns and problems in return, so that your child has a model for what communication about mental wellbeing looks like, and so that they can see that you’ve been there, too and understand what they’re going through.
I recognize that I didn’t know the warning flags I should have been tracking with my own girls.
Learn about what healthy adolescent development looks like vs the indicators of an emergent mental health condition. For me, this is one that is extremely near to home. With the luxury of hindsight, I recognize that I didn’t know the warning signs that I should have been following with my own girls. That’s not surprising, given as a society we often miss opportunities to teach parents—and everyone else for that matter—what mental health difficulties look like and how to effectively support someone who is struggling.
Fortunately, that’s beginning to change. Programs like Mental Health First Aid can equip you with hands-on training to help recognize the signals that your child is having a mental health condition and the skills you need to support your family. It’s the practical knowledge I wish I knew years ago when my daughter was first beginning to have symptoms.
Build a “toolkit.”
Help your child assemble the resources they can turn to when they need support.
Our most recent research found that young people value their mental health and would be comfortable using a wide array of tools to support it, but often just don’t know where to go to obtain that help. This knowledge gap is a basic problem that, as parents, we can take efforts to remedy today.
Start with understanding about the services that exist in your neighbourhood (and online) that your child might wish to turn to one day—and start a conversation with them about these tools. Make it an ongoing dialogue—not one huge, stressful “talk”—about the choices for help that exist so that your child knows what is out there if and when they need it.
Don’t know where to get started?
Born This Way Foundation is urging our community to share the mental health services they rely on this month using the hashtag #CKShoutOutTo Challenge on social media.
Helping to help someone who is battling with a mental health issue is never easy—especially when it’s your child. But with greater information and access to practical resources, it is something that we can all get better at. So whichever of the milestones you and your family are celebrating this season, I pray you accomplish it surrounded by the community and support you need.