How parents can improve mental health of teenage children

Ask the Expert

GREENVILLE, SC (WSPA) – In a recent community health needs assessment, Bon Secours St. Francis found a 12 percent increase in emergency visits from teenagers in Greenville that were related to mental illness.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Carson Felkel says major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD are on the rise in teens across the nation.

“Anxiety is doubling in kids in that 12- to 17-year-old age group,” he said. “3.2 million children are struggling with anxiety…. we know suicide rates have gone up around the country, especially in South Carolina.”

He believes an increase in screen time and a decrease in human interaction are major factors.

“Inter-personal relationships are really important for brain development and we know the brain is not developed until the age of 24, so kids are really susceptible to things that can hijack the wiring of their brain and that’s what screens do,” he explained.

According to the National Institute of Health, symptoms of clinical depression in teens include feeling hopeless, losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable, lower performance in school, having trouble sleeping and irritability.

Deciphering between normal mood swings and depression or anxiety can be difficult for parents, he says, so he recommends seeking professional help if symptoms of depression or anxiety persist for most days out of the week.

A therapist can help “see what’s going on,” Dr. Felkel says, helping the teen untangle their thoughts and feelings. He says these are often fused together in teens, but through cognitive behavioral therapy, a therapist can help patients see why some of their thoughts may be irrational, which can affect how they feel.

“As a child psychologist, when I’m evaluating a kid for depression or anxiety, my first question is: is their mood change excessive or out of proportion for what their baseline is? My next question is: is it happening in multiple environments? Is this just happening at home, or is it at school and at soccer practice, too?”

To distinguish between normal mood swings and a disorder, he says it’s important that parents know their children well so they can know what their baseline is, in regards to mental health.

Dr. Felkel says with his own children, he does this by having an intentional conversation every day. “In my home, we sit together to have dinner and I ask, ‘What’s something good thing that happened today? What’s something that could have been better? and What’s something that was funny?’ That strikes up a conversation.”

He says the most important thing parents can do to improve a teenager’s mental health is to spend a few minutes of positive quality time together each day on the teenager’s terms, doing something the teen enjoys and that leaves room for conversation to take place.

“It should be a cell phone free zone, and in doing this you’re rewarding the kid with your attention,” he said. “Then when it comes time to say ‘We need to see a therapist,’ you’re going to have that relationship where they respect you and want to go to that visit.”

If you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts, Dr. Felkel says to treat it like a medical emergency and to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is free and available 24/7, or go to an emergency room right away.

To submit a health question for our series, click here.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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