How to start the conversation with kids about mental health

Father sitting on floor with son

By Katie Dineen

Mental health and mental illness can be difficult to discuss, especially for teenagers who are already going through many changes and figuring life out. Social stigma and shame have painted mental health with a negative brush, causing many adolescents to struggle in silence. However, talking about mental health early is critical to developing healthy habits and well-being. Learning to chat about mental health while young equips people with tools they can use to support their mental health throughout their life.

With 1 in 6 youths, ages 6–17, experiencing a mental health disorder each year, the need to start this conversation about brain health is apparent. In this New York Times story, Matt Richtel suggests ways parents, friends, and teens can begin that conversation.

“Health risks in adolescence are undergoing a major shift. Three decades ago, the biggest health threats to teenagers were binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, cigarettes and illicit drugs. Today, they are anxiety, depression, suicide, self-harm and other serious mental health disorders.”

Richtel provides a guide for identifying the signs of anxiety or depression, starting a compassionate conversation with a struggling teen, and taking more serious action when needed.

“Be clear and direct and don’t shy from hard questions, but also approach these issues with compassion and not blame. Challenging as it may seem to talk about these issues, young people often are desperate to be heard.”

Richtel encourages parents and loved ones to do thorough research and ask questions when trying to find the right doctor, diagnosis, and medication for adolescents. If urgent symptoms of mental illness arise, such as suicidal thoughts or self-harm, it is important to immediately seek help. These symptoms are used to reduce emotional pain, so finding healthy alternatives can help teens regulate their emotions.

Talking about your mental health is a sign of strength, not weakness, and can be an effective way to foster mental health. Read more about how to help teens struggling with mental health here and explore Richtel’s series on adolescent mental health here.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 (En Español: 1–888–628–9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1–800–799–4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.


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