As kids transition from childhood to their teenage years, both their physical health and mental health needs can change, too. Even as kids in this age group seek more independence, it’s imperative for parents to stay in conversation with teens about common challenges like depression and thoughts of suicide, especially as they are also experiencing the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Health reports that nearly one third of American adolescents show signs of depression, though the Center for Disease Control reports that less than 5 percent of kids between ages 3 and 17 have been officially diagnosed. According to the CDC, suicide is among the leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24.
We asked local pediatrician Dr. Taylor Craft how parents can help tweens and teens navigate their mental health and be on the lookout for warning signs for depression.
As elementary-age kids transition to their tween and teen years, what medical concerns specific to this age group should parents discuss with their kids and pediatricians?
Kids at this age start becoming more independent, and therefore begin to make a lot of their own decisions. This means forming healthy habits are crucial. I always like to discuss diet and exercise at this age with the patient directly, along with possibly getting baseline labs if there are certain risk factors in play. A tough conversation to have with families is that normally healthy habits are directly attributed to what is available at the home. Families need to make healthy decisions together, especially when the tween isn’t making their own decisions about meals or activity level.
Another big talking point is social support at home and at school. Signs of depression can start to show at this age and having open conversations with either a parent or seeking out a counselor is crucial.
What can depression look like in a teenager, and what steps can parents take if they believe their teen is depressed?
Depression can show up in multiple ways and does not always have a single trigger. A very common indication of depression in teens is social isolation with loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. In a teen, this can look like a lot of time in their room by themselves and/or not being interested in other family or friend activities.
Counseling is always a good first step when it comes to any issues with mental health. Having a trained third party to discuss feelings and thoughts with can be just what a child needs. I normally recommend counseling first, but if this is not effective or the depression is severe, I would likely start discussing medication options with families. When it comes to medication, patients are monitored closely, initially weekly, and followed up with routinely to ensure improvement of symptoms along with dealing with side effects. The most common side effect is abdominal pain, but there is a small risk of the depression worsening, which is why patients need to be watched closely.
If a parent feels there is a reason to be concerned at all, have your child screened by their pediatrician.
What key indicators should parents be aware of that could indicate their teen might be having suicidal thoughts?
Any discussion or comments regarding suicide should raise a red flag with any adult, especially family members. If there is family history of depression, both the pediatrician and a counselor should have open discussion about suicidal thoughts. Some more subtle signs could be a teen saying, even jokingly, “I’d be better off dead,” or other phrases that downplay self-worth. Self-harm is another high-risk behavior that should have parents appropriately concerned.
If a parent is seeing signs of depression begin to develop at a rapid rate in their child, I recommend the child be seen immediately to address any concerns.
What types of ongoing conversations should parents be having with their teens about mental health and suicide?
Any parent’s attempt to stay engaged and involved in their teen’s life can go a long way. Showing interest in their activities and friends will make it more likely for a child to open up and discuss personal topics like mental health. Parents should continue to stay aware and not shy away from having open dialogue with their teen or asking questions when they are concerned.
What proactive steps can parents take to empower teens to take ownership of their physical and mental health?
As difficult as it can be, giving some autonomy to your child can help them take ownership of their own health! Reinforcing those small healthy choices that a child is making throughout their day will have an effect on long-term habits. High school students tend to spend a lot of time outside of the home, and this makes the choices they make even more important for their own well-being.
Taylor Craft, DO, is passionate about growing with families and being there for continued care throughout a child’s first 18 years. Originally from the east Oklahoma City area, Dr. Craft enjoys the opportunity to serve the families he grew up with. He received his bachelor’s degree, earned his medical degree and completed his residency at Oklahoma State University. He is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Osteopathic Physicians, American Osteopathic Association and Oklahoma Osteopathic Association. When not caring for patients, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two children, playing pick-up basketball with friends and getting in as much golf as possible. Dr. Craft is a pediatrician with SSM Health St. Anthony Healthplex at I-40 and Douglas Boulevard in Midwest City.
Reach Dr. Craft at 405-772-4620 or ssmhealth.com/TaylorCraftDO.