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14 September 2017

Ask your teens R U OK?

With one in seven young people experiencing a mental health issue in any given year, experts say it’s never too early to start a conversation with your child about their thoughts and feelings.

R U OK Day (Thursday 14 September) is an opportunity to open up the chat.

While all teenagers have ups and downs, Beyondblue psychologist Dr Luke Martin says that if a parent notices worrying changes in their teenager’s behaviour, it’s best to talk about it.

“Asking your child about how they feel gives them the opportunity to share with you what they are going through,” he says.

“Having these discussions can make all the difference in helping them get through any issues.”

The 2016 Youth Survey Report from Mission Australia clearly showed that mental health was top of mind for young people.

Nearly 22 000 respondents aged 15 to 19 years took part, with 20 per cent reporting mental health as one of their top three concerns.

In Western Australia, more than 1000 young people responded that mental health was of major concern.

With almost 300 000 young people attending our State’s public schools, the Department of Education has a focus on developing the ‘whole child’ in a high quality – high care environment.

Schools have a strong focus on youth mental health, providing school psychologists, a range of programs for students and training for staff.

Acting Assistant Executive Director, Statewide Services Karen Webster says school staff are well placed to recognise when a student is experiencing a mental health issue, and what steps to take to assist them.

“The key message for parents is that there is always help available and no one should ever feel alone,” she says.

“Staff are in a unique position to observe changes in student behaviour and to educate students to look out for their peers.

“Schools have access to social and emotional programs that have shown positive results in preventing the development, or worsening of, mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

“Our Teen Mental Health First Aid training, for example, teaches Year 10, 11 and 12 students how to immediately help a friend with a mental health issue – and to get support from an adult quickly.”

Beyondblue’s Dr Martin says awareness and immediate support from peers is important as teenagers spent the majority of their time at school.

“School is one of the most significant environments for promoting good mental health for young people,” he says.

“Teachers and school staff play a role in recognising the early signs of a developing mental health condition and they can work with families to ensure students receive any professional support needed.”

One school that is taking a positive stance in mental health education is Derby District High School.

Its Teen Mental Health First Aid program helps students recognise the signs of a mental health problem developing, and identify if a friend is in crisis – particularly if they may be contemplating suicide.

Senior school psychologist Christine Zuvich says that students are more confident after completing the program.

“Students are less likely to believe that friends with mental health problems are more dangerous and that having an issue is a sign of personal weakness,” she says.

“It makes them more willing to disclose their own mental health problems to others, and more confident to help their peers.”

Today, on R U OK Day, parents and teachers are urged to let young people know if they are concerned about them.

Dr Martin says there are a number of things parents can look for if they suspected a decline in their child’s wellbeing.

“It’s important to look for any changes in your teenager’s usual way of behaving and, if it persists for more than two weeks, it could be a sign of a more concerning issue,” he says.

“They may be sadder, more irritable, angry or stressed; be withdrawing from friends; stopping activities or hobbies they usually enjoy; having difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much; and having difficulty concentrating or completing their school work.”

Some tips for starting the conversation:

  • “I’m really worried about you. Can we talk?”
  • “I’ve been noticing that you are (sad/distant/not yourself). I am really concerned. Can we talk about what’s been bothering you?”
  • “You haven’t been acting like yourself lately. Let’s talk about what’s going on.”

When a young person shares their feelings it’s important to listen, acknowledge their feelings and seek professional help. Beyondblue has more great tips.

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