Advice for parents of kids with mental health challenges: Don’t look away

TORONTO — If you notice an unusual change in your child’s behaviour that you suspect may be linked to their mental health, the worst thing you can do is brush those concerns under the rug.

That’s the advice of two leading youth mental health experts who are encouraging parents to trust their instincts rather than dismiss their child’s behaviour as moody or difficult.

“Many parents tell us they’re quite intimidated about raising difficult topics, particularly with teenagers. You’re worried about pushing them away, you’re worried about putting dark thoughts in their heads, or maybe you didn’t have a lot of experience in your family raising those questions,” Pier Bryden, a staff psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children since 2001, told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.

“So what we’re trying to say is: start early. Talk to your kids about their mental health, how they’re feeling, and make it clear that there’s no judgment. You’re there to help, and you want to listen.”

Nationally, an estimated 1.2 million young people are affected by mental illness, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. But less than 20 per cent of those youth receive proper treatment.

Bryden and her colleague Peter Szatmari, the head of the University of Toronto’s division of child and youth mental health, are co-authors of the new book “Start Here: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children and Teens Through Mental Health Challenges.” The book offers the doctors’ perspective on the warning signs and interventions for a variety of mental health challenges, including eating disorders, anxiety, substance abuse and depression.

Sudden changes of behaviour may include a dramatic drop in grades, withdrawing from friends or new conflicts at home. If those changes appear to last longer than a month or two, “then that’s certainly a warning signs – a red flag,” Szatmari said.

Finding the right mental health resources can be challenging. A 2017 report found that youth between the ages of 10 and 19 with mental health illnesses or addictions were most likely to enter emergency rooms as their first point of contact, rather than a family doctor. That could be because access to mental health resources varies from province to province. 

But those resources do exist, and Bryden and Szatmari say the best place to start is with a family doctor, a community health centre or a school counsellor.

Once an appointment is scheduled, they say it’s best to come prepared with several relevant documents, such as recent report cards.

“If your child has ever had an educational assessment, if there were concerns about attention or learning disorders, it’s really helpful to bring those things. I also suggest parents write their questions down because it can be a bit nerve-wracking, particularly if it’s a first appointment, and that will help you remember the key questions you wanted to make sure you covered,” Bryden said.

ADVANCE IN TREATMENTS

The good news is that awareness and treatments for youth mental health has come a long way in recent years, according to Szatmari. He has personally seen growth in the number of therapies available since he started his practice.

“We need to get those therapies out there for people to access them and use them because we’ve got them now, so let’s use them,” he said.

About 70 per cent of mental health challenges begin in youth, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, and early identification is considered a key step in intervention. Seven per cent of Canadians between the ages of 12 to 19 reported having a diagnosed anxiety or mood disorder, according to a 2015 report. Just over six per cent reported having seriously thought about suicide or taking their own life in the last year. 

By the time they reach 25, an estimated one-in-five Canadians will have developed a mental illness.

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