Creating a culture of conversation around youth mental health
How parents, families and trusted adults can help erase the stigma
When Julie Ann’s daughter was 10, she stopped turning in her homework and started having anxiety, panic attacks. Ultimately, her daughter would be diagnosed with disruptive mood disorder, which is, Julie Ann said, juvenile onset of bipolar disorder. While her daughter was doing well in school and her achievement never fell below grade level, she was missing school and having a hard time making friends.
At the time, Julie Ann’s daughter was attending Vail Christian, but the family ultimately pulled her out to enroll in the public Eagle County school district.
When the family went to Eagle County Schools, Julie Ann asked the school for accommodations to ensure her daughter got the support she needed. However, she was met with resistance and ended up seeking an outside therapist as well as an educational consultant to get her daughter the support when needed at the school.
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“The school system, unless they’re diagnosing or seeing [the behaviors], then they don’t take the outside parent request for evaluation or input very seriously,” she said. “That’s the hardest thing for parents in the schools, if they don’t think there’s a problem, but the parents do, it’s like you’re nobody.”
Her daughter did ultimately get an individualized education program at her school, but Julie Ann still felt like the family was doing the heavy lifting and her daughter still was not thriving.
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“As parents, we were the constant case managers,” Julie Ann said. “It was always us reaching out, we rarely got reached out to from the school.”
During COVID-19, the family made the difficult decision to pull their daughter from Eagle County Schools and enroll her in a therapeutic boarding school in another state. At this school, she is getting the support she needs, is thriving and it made a huge difference for the entire family.
Overall, Julie Ann sees the changes being made and is happy for the addition of Hope Center clinicians in the school, however when it came to her daughter it was too little, too late.
“We felt very isolated in our in our journey and very shut out by the school system,” she said.
Throughout this process, Julie Ann was boosted up by her husband and her family, but going through it, she said she often felt completely isolated.
“You feel very isolated, you just learn to be by yourself and to try to navigate and then get told you’re a helicopter parent because you don’t get the feeling that people understand or are willing to understand,” Julie Ann said. “It was very, very hard.”
For Julie Ann, having more engagement from the school district and an explicit parent support group would’ve been awesome. At her daughter’s new school, they have an explicit group and she said its been “instrumental and it’s made huge differences in our ability to handle the ups and downs.”
The importance of family
When it comes to mental health, the family plays an important role in the student’s well-being. In some cases, stigmas get passed down through families, while in others, a culture of understanding and vulnerability can bring on new conversations and new levels of support.
“Youth watch the adults in this community, whether the adults realize it or not. The modeling of healthy behaviors, demonstrating stress management skills and authentically listening to our youth is critical for the community’s well-being,” said Candace Eves, prevention coordinator for Eagle County Schools. “How our students are doing is a reflection of how our community is doing holistically.”
Generationally, as well as culturally, there are still often discrepancies around mental health and they way that it is handled. However, parents and families play a vital role in a child’s well-being.
“Families can help provide healthy boundaries and expectations for foundational behaviors that support well-being,” said Dana Whelan, the district’s wellness coordinator.
For some families, identifying when to talk to children about mental health, or see when they’re struggling, can be difficult to navigate.
Often times, licensed professional counselor Megan Vogt said, “they don’t want to open up.” Vogt owns her own counseling practice in Eagle County where she works primarily with adolescents.
“There is a certain amount of distance and secrecy that happens at this age, which is completely normal,” she said. “But at the same time, they need to know that their parents are there and supportive and that they’re always a home base.”
And when it comes to listening to kids, Vogt stressed the importance of taking them seriously.
“Kids aren’t faking it,” she said. “It’s so much more helpful to believe your child and to get them help that they need than to think that they’re either faking it or needing attention because even if they are, the damage that could be done by ignoring them is just not worth it.”
Understanding warning signs
While warning signs vary for students, a good place to start is anything “that seems out of the ordinary,” said Hannah Ross, a school-based clinician and lead clinical supervisor for the Hope Center. She added that common warning signs can include students withdrawing from interests, students talking about suicide, self-harming behaviors, trouble sleeping, appetite disturbance or continual anger and irritability.
For Julie Ann, she noticed little things first with her daughter — absences, homework not being turned in, having difficulty making friends.
“When you look at it with a child with mental health, they are often socially delayed, the often organizationally delayed but they may not be academically delayed,” she said. “It’s the whole child.”
Casey Wolfington, a licensed psychologist and senior director of community behavioral health at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, would like to get to a point where parents treat kids’ mental health just like any other health concerns.
“Start talking about emotions and behaviors and feelings early and often, just like you do talking about physical concerns. We talk about bellyaches with kiddos all the time. So if we are talking about worry and sadness in similar ways, it makes it so it’s OK to talk about,” she said.
In order to normalize these conversations and help parents and families understand the value of these conversations and how to recognize mental health warning signs, many community organizations have begun to reach out to the whole family.
During COVID-19, Carrie Benway, the executive director of the Hope Center, noted that the Hope Center upped its case management services, helping parents and siblings connect with a variety of necessary services.
Dr. Teresa Haynes, clinical supervisor at the Hope Center, said that these even go beyond therapeutic resources and tap into additional areas of need, including resources for finances, food insecurity and housing. Areas that, she said, “you can’t separate out from mental health challenges.”
For many years, Mountain Youth has provided a program called Eat, Chat, Parent. These are free, bilingual family education programs that delve into topics that parents and youth in the community have prioritized. Some of the topics for Eat, Chat, Parent programs this fall and winter include vicarious trauma, inclusion, mental health and LGBTQ support, as well as cultures of dignity.
According to the organization’s Executive Director, Michelle Stecher, this allows families to experience the education together, sparking easier conversations and building skills and connections as a family. With this multi-generational approach, “we’ve seen the opportunity for the impact at home to skyrocket,” she said.
“To make a difference in the lives of our youth, it takes working with family members and care givers because, if a young person doesn’t feel safe and supported at home, that’s a huge risk, red flag,” Stecher said.
Within the Hispanic community, there is still a stigma around talking about mental health.
“A lot of times, especially with the Latinos, our families don’t want to talk about it,” said Bratzo Horruitiner, executive director of My Future Pathways. “We are like a pressure cooker. So, we need to have those conversations, formalize and make these types of conversations more accessible.”
My Future Pathways, for its part, is getting creative about providing information about often stigmatized topics. One way is by giving information to parents that they can digest, research and try to understand at home, where there is less fear of judgment.
“I believe that if we stay ahead and stay creative and challenge the status quo, I think that’s one of the ways that we can become successful and support one family at a time,” Horruitiner said.
Gerry Lopez grew up in this macho environment, where mental health was a taboo topic. When he started struggling with feelings of depression and loneliness, he didn’t know what to do, because of his upbringing, he said. Now, he wishes more adults understood that “mental health doesn’t discriminate and that trauma is trauma.”
“I have talked with numerous youth that would rather come to someone like me that is closer to their age than an adult due to the fear of their trauma being belittled and not taken seriously,” Lopez said.
Now, Lopez works with My Future Pathways and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health to help build conversations around mental health for youth in the Latino community.
“Once I began therapy in high school I started to talk to my friends about it and a lot of them talked to me about how they would like to have the opportunity to do the same but they were scared of what their parents would say. Throughout high school I saw and talked to a lot of other Latino males about mental health and saw the need there,” Lopez said.
Ultimately, none of these problems will be solved in isolation, and talking about them is the best thing we can do.
“There’s significant value in just being heard and validated, for all of us, for any of us,” Haynes said. “As a bigger picture, it’s educating families, educating communities about ways and systems to decrease stress, was to maintain realistic expectations of yourself, of other people. I think sometimes about my five year old, how he’s so much more emotionally aware than I certainly was at his age. I think we are having that impact, it’s just not seen right away.”