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How parents can help children who may be struggling with mental health: "Kids will always surprise you"

Talking to kids about mental health
Clinical psychologist on talking to kids during Mental Health Awareness Month 05:46

With one in five children and adolescents coping with a diagnosable mental health or learning disorder, the Child Mind Institute launched Monday its "Dare to Share" campaign, to encourage kids to talk about the issue of mental health. The campaign features celebrities, artists, athletes and role models who all share their personal stories, to de-stigmatize talking about mental health struggles and seeking support.

In one video, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Pink speaks of her panic attacks: "I will tell you from being a very, very afraid 7-, 8-, 13-, 23-, 31-, and now 42-year-old woman, it does get better, and there are beautiful moments waiting for you." 

P!nk Dares to Share by Child Mind Institute on YouTube

The campaign also features Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy, who said, "I myself struggle with depression. It's something that I have to deal with every day. I've taken a lot of steps to try and better my situation. I'm on medication for it. And I just want you to know that there is help and there are resources out there for you." 

Emmy-nominated actress Maisie Williams ("Game of Thrones") said, "I think ultimately just telling someone about it made me feel better. And I didn't even need any big pearls of wisdom, being able to express myself helped get the overwhelming feelings out and they stopped being quite so overwhelming."

Visiting "CBS Mornings," Jamie Howard, a senior clinical psychologist from the Child Mind Institute, said that it's important for celebrities and individuals of influence to share their stories, to make it easier for young people to seek help. 

"Stigma is a huge barrier to care," she said. "So, when we have celebrities who we look up to and we admire and we know that they're so successful and talented, that makes it seem like, 'Oh, it would be okay if I shared, too. I can get the help that I need.'"

Who is at risk?

Co-host Gayle King asked, "When you say one in five children [has a mental health or learning disorder], do you have a specific age range that you think parents really need to pay attention at this particular age, this particular phase, this particular sex?"

"We like to look at through age 24 or so; that's when the brain really kind of solidifies and our frontal lobes stop developing, and we're adults at age 24," Howard said. "And we know that the onset of mental health problems, 50% of disorders starts before the age of 14, and 75% before the age of 24. That's really what we want to look at, childhood through early adulthood."

To examine why a child might experience mental stress or anguish, Howard pointed to a stress diathesis model, "meaning we have a biological pre-disposition, we have the environment we grew up in, and If we're born prone to a mental health disorder, it's going to come out earlier rather than later in life."

Monitoring children

Co-host Tony Dokoupil said, "Everybody wants to raise resilient kids. That's your goal as a parent – you don't want to coddle your kids, but it's hard to know where the line is between telling a kid to shake it off and get back in there, and it being a chronic problem, a real problem."

Howard said, "You want to monitor.  It's OK for kids to have setbacks, and we want kids to have moments of failure – that builds character, it builds resilience. So, we don't want to spare children from any disappointments necessarily. But we want to monitor to make sure they're functioning. If it goes on for, say, two weeks of a child being consistently sad and down and not interested in things they used to enjoy, then we might think, 'This is starting to seem like a depressive episode and not just a momentary setback.'"

Talking to your kids

Burleson said, "Something I had to learn as a parent was, each kid receives information differently. So, I have to parent them differently. I can't have the same mental health conversation with my 18-year-old as I do with my 16-year-old, as I do with my daughter who's 12. What advice do you give to parents that might be dealing with different personalities and struggling with an approach to talking to multiple kids?"

"Some rules of thumb are that you want to ask open-ended questions," Howard replied. "And you want to be curious. You don't necessarily want to go in expecting you already know the answer. Kids will always surprise you. So, sort of state your observations, and with empathy and earnestness ask, like, 'So, tell me what's going on, I've noticed you haven't been spending time with your friends lately.' Or, 'I noticed your grades are slipping.'

"And don't jump to reprimanding them, but say, 'What's going on?'"  

"What about kids who are struggling and don't know how to ask for help – or parents who are struggling and don't know how to ask for help for their children?" asked King.

Howard replied, "That's why it's so important to have these ongoing conversations, so that the onus isn't necessarily on kids to say, 'Hey, I think I might be struggling with a mental health problem.' They don't necessarily have that language, especially when you're young. But if you have repeated conversations with children starting when they're younger, then there's an opportunity."


Dokoupil said, "Suicide is obviously a worst-case scenario, but it is the leading cause of death for kids 15 to 19. We've heard from other guests that you should say the word; it's okay to say to a younger person – you're not planting a seed. Is that the right advice?"

"That's true," said Howard. "If someone is not suicidal, and you say to them, 'Hey, have you been thinking about killing yourself?' They will not think, 'Oh, no, I wasn't, but now I am.' That's not how that works. 

"It's only if you have a mental health condition that you would say, 'Actually, yes, and thank you for asking.'" Parents, she said, should be frank. "There's nothing to be afraid of."

King asked, "Do you think children would answer that question honestly?"

"I think a lot of children would, because it feels really bad to have depression or anxiety. Like, we want to feel better when we have these conditions. It's often we just don't know how." 

Jamie Howard will be visiting "CBS Mornings" nearly every Monday in May, Mental Health Awareness Month.


If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

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