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What Parents Can do to Support Children with Mental Health Issues

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When most people think of Orange County, they think of wealth, big homes, and fast cars. Unfortunately, what many don’t realize is that Orange County has a high rate of homelessness, and the Anaheim Union High School District is located in one of the poorest zip codes in California.

There are many children in the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) that are in crisis. The district averages one ER visit every week, frequently with a suicide attempt or mental health crisis. Mental health issues are something that are not talked enough about, and the stigma surrounding that needs to end. It is a real illness that people suffer from, and when living in a tough situation, it can be worse for an individual.

Providence St. Joseph Health, one of the leading healthcare companies in Orange County, has recognized the support that AUHSD needs and has begun funding the School Based Adolescent Mental Health Program to provide support to student health crises and mental health resources using the Promotion, Prevention and Intervention Model. Their goal is to offer the support needed to prevent a crisis from happening to the children within the community.

Knowing that so many students within the district are in unstable housing, whether homeless, living in motels, garages or multi-family apartments, the district’s new superintendent has switched the focus from improving SAT scores to helping to improve the emotional wellbeing of the students in his region.

Providence St. Joseph Health, via Well Being Trust, is funding the program to help in reducing the stress that children within the district are experiencing. The grant supports AUHSC to develop a training program for teachers to be given the skills to properly help their students and also parents who might be experiencing mental health challenges. The program curriculum will award students who complete the curriculum with college credits and will award adults with continuing education credits.

One of my favorite things about the program is that parents can possibly count their enrollment as “looking for work” which is the requisite designation in order to receive public assistance.

Dr. Clayton Chau

I talked with Dr. Chau at Providence St. Joseph Health about what parents can do when they first realize that their child is experiencing mental health issues and he recommended to first start by bringing your child into the pediatrician for a full assessment to ensure there is no physical health condition that could manifest as behavioral issues and symptoms. You’ll also want to get your child to see a child psychologist for a full neuropsychological testing. He also recommended learning all that you can and to get educated on mental health by accessing educational materials on websites such as the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and/or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Most importantly, have open and supportive communication with your child.

If your child does have a mental health issue, parents can play a huge role in supporting the child by having the above mentioned supportive and open communication. Dr. Chau recommended helping your child know the truth about mental health and prevent them from forming their own inaccurate beliefs. You’ll want to let your child know that mental illness is not a sign of weakness and reassure them that people with mental illness can get better and do recover, and focus on honesty and openness.

When talking with your child about their mental health issues, parents can help by being aware of their needs and concerns, communicating with them in a straightforward manner, and communicating at a level that is appropriate for the child. You’ll want to have the discussion when your child feels safe and comfortable, slow down or back up if your child becomes confused or looks upset, and provide constant reassurance and support. Remember, the conversation can also be facilitated by a professional such as the pediatrician, school psychologist or other mental health specialists. If you have a younger child, less information and fewer details are needed since they tend to focus primarily on things they can see.

Dr. Chau recommended that parents help support their children at home by being attentive, take notice of your child’s mood, behaviors, and emotional needs. Work with the school to ensure your child receives appropriate care and services at school. Avoid expressing frustration or anger at your child for behaviors that are not under their control but that does not mean you shouldn’t set limit or impose discipline. As parents, it is also very important to take care of yourself. Take care of your family, the other parent, and children. Get the entire family involved such as family counseling, community mental health activities, etc.

Most of the time mental health emergencies are those involving the threat of suicide or the occurrence of an actual suicide attempt. Other types of mental health emergency may involve the threat of harm to another person. If there is an emergency, Dr. Chau recommended contacting your family pediatrician, local mental health assessment team or emergency services at 911. It is extremely important that threats of suicide be taken seriously. This is especially true if the threats have been voiced repeatedly or your child is inebriated or under the influence of drugs. It is a dangerous myth to believe that suicide threats are harmless attempts to get attention.

Childhood depression is different from the normal ‘blues’ and everyday emotions that occur as a child grows and develops. Remember, just because a child seems sad doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has depression. If the sadness becomes persistent or interferes with normal social activities, schoolwork, interests or family life, it is time to seek professional evaluation.

Signs and symptoms of depression in children you will want to look for are:
*Irritability or anger
*Continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness
*Social withdrawal
*Increased sensitivity to rejection
*Changes in appetite, either increased or decreased
*Changes in sleep, either excessive sleep or sleeplessness
*Vocal outbursts or crying
*Difficulty concentrating
*Fatigue and low energy
*Physical complaints, such as stomachaches, headaches, etc., that don’t respond to treatment
*Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in their hobbies
*Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
*Impaired thinking or concentration
*Thoughts of death or suicide
*May begin to use drugs or alcohol

What Providence St. Joseph Health is doing for the students within the Anaheim Union High School District and their parents is revolutionary. It is so important to remove the stigma behind mental health issues and to shift the focus on providing the care and support that those suffering so desperately need. Learn more about Providence St. Joseph Health and the work they are doing to help support those in our community online at future.psjhealth.org.

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