The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 12, 2019 1:00 am

Talk to kids about mental health; be sure to listen, too

Marcia Haaff

Mother's Day has a way of making us reflective of our parenting, doesn't it?

Are you preparing your children well for life? Are you having the important conversations that set them up for success, make them resilient and demonstrate your confidence in their abilities and choices?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which is a good time to evaluate your own understanding of mental health and wellness and how you discuss them in your family. Do you have conversations with your child about their mental health? About drug and alcohol use? Would you be able to recognize if your child were struggling with a mental health crisis? If you are feeling uncertain, you are not alone. Many parents report feeling ill-equipped to talk with their kids about mental health concerns and substance use.

Aside from the role that our biological makeup can have on mental illness, trauma and unpleasant life situations can also trigger mental health problems such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. In a recent poll of more than 8,400 northeast Indiana middle and high school students, 32% stated they had been bullied to the point of wanting to hurt themselves. In another poll of more than 3,900 northeast Indiana teens, 30% reported having a high level of anxiety.

Some youth may turn to drugs and alcohol for solace, especially those who cannot find a healthy outlet for their frustrations.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 74% of adults in treatment for substance use disorder began using alcohol or other drugs before the age of 17. About 10% of 12-year-olds say they have tried alcohol. And, by age 15, that number jumps to 50%. By the time they are seniors in high school, almost 70% will have tried alcohol, half of these teens report having taken an illegal drug, and more than 20% will have misused a prescription drug for a non-medical purpose.

Parents, the sooner you talk with your children about depression, substance use and mental wellness, the greater chance you will have of influencing their decisions and establishing a healthy support network for them when they feel overwhelmed.

Most of us have heard the phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” which is also true with mental health. It is important to have conversations with your children early, and to really know your kids. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in.”

Starting mental health conversations with your children can be as simple as using everyday opportunities to talk and really listen – in the car, during dinner, or while you and your child are watching television. Having lots of little talks takes the pressure off trying to get all the information out in one lengthy discussion, and your child will be less likely to tune you out.

For example, as your child is headed out to hang with their friends, you could say, “I really like your friends. Just remember that you don't need to drink or do drugs if your friends ask you to. You're good enough the way you are. Go have fun!”

This conversation may feel awkward to you at first, and maybe to them too, but they are listening, and they do want to hear from you. So, please talk, and often. They will hear you. Start the conversation. Silence the stigma.

Marcia Haaff is CEO of the Lutheran Foundation.

About the series

Today's piece is the second in a series of essays that will appear each Sunday in May in recognition of National Mental Health Awareness month.

May 5: Mental health in the faith community

Today: How parents can help their children achieve mental health

May 19: Mental health in the workplace

May 26: Dealing with PTSD and other types of trauma

For more information on mental health challenges and solutions, go to the foundation's website, Communication tips and other mental health resources for parents are available at

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