Over the next several weeks, The Cheshire Herald will run a series of columns, courtesy of State Representative Liz Linehan (D-103) regarding this issue of mental health among children and teens.
Earlier this month, Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new Surgeon General’s Advisory to highlight the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. The advisory calls for a “swift and coordinated response to this crisis,” to which my reply was, “thank you … but what took you so long?”
Since 2018, I’ve been working with mental health professionals and parents to help coordinate a state response to this crisis which began before COVID-19, but has since been exacerbated by the pandemic. As a result, my partners and I have passed legislation to create and strengthen many of the programs available to our children and families. However, the one thing legislation cannot do is directly reach out to parents and children who need help now.
I am proud to announce a new series in partnership with The Cheshire Herald to provide real-world, actionable help to parents and children who are in the midst of this very real crisis. Over the next five weeks, we will walk parents through the process of how to determine if your child may need to see a mental health professional, connect you with services both in and out of school, and even discuss scary topics such as self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide. I commend The Herald for recognizing the importance of addressing these issues in an open, honest manner, and for lending us space within their paper to help you, the readers, and your families.
You may be wondering: How do I know if my child needs help? I posed this question to Michelle Piccerillo, director of Cheshire Human Services, who is also a licensed marriage and family therapist. She explained that the signs may be different depending on age.
For young children, depression and anxiety may manifest itself in frequent tantrums, or complaints about stomach aches or headaches with no known medical cause. For older children or adolescents, a good indicator is if they’ve suddenly lost interest in things they used to enjoy, like sports, hobbies or friends. Any sudden change in behavior should lead to a possible evaluation.
As a parent of an adolescent, I often wonder what is age-appropriate, and what isn’t. For instance, I fully expect my 13-year-old to want to spend more time in her room, and we all know mood swings are par for the course. But if your adolescent is spending more and more time alone, and is avoiding social activities with friends and family, it is important to reach out to a professional for an evaluation. Any change in hygiene habits is also a red flag — for kids who refuse to shower or brush their teeth, that is often the first sign that something is amiss, because when you’re fighting depression, even the simplest things can seem so difficult. Also be aware of expressions of worthlessness or hopelessness — this is more than self-defeating talk; it is a known warning for suicide.
You may be asking, “How do I know the difference between behavior problems and mental health issues?” The truth is, you may not. And this is why it’s so important to seek an initial evaluation. We used to treat truancy as a behavior issue; in fact, it was a crime. Now that we know so much more about mental health, the term has changed to “school refusal” and is one of the early signs of depression and anxiety. Cheshire’s absenteeism rate jumped from 4% in 2020, to 11% in October of this year. If your child is finding it difficult to make it to school each day, there may be a mental health concern holding them back.
As parents, we are often unsure of when pushing our child to do their best goes beyond positive encouragement. We wonder if school refusal is just laziness. We wonder if they’re really sick that day, or are they faking it? If you find yourself asking those questions, mental health professionals say it’s time for an evaluation.
First, seek advice and an evaluation from your pediatrician. Depending on your child’s age, the doctor may ask you to leave the room while they ask your child about their feelings. I know this is scary for a parent, to relinquish control and leave your child alone even for a 5-to-10-minute discussion, but remember that your child must be able to speak freely without fear of disappointing you — a common concern of kids in crisis.
Keep in mind that your pediatrician is often someone to whom you’ve entrusted your child’s health over the course of several years. Trusting them to address mental health is truly no different. You both share the same goal of a happy, healthy, well-adjusted child.
Depending on the results of the evaluation, your pediatrician should be able to suggest your next steps. If you feel, even after the evaluation, that your child is in need of greater services than the pediatrician can provide, or your child is in active crisis (including suicidal thoughts or self-harm), you can always call Mobile Crisis at 2-1-1, who will send a licensed social worker to evaluate and stabilize your child, and help coordinate any next level of care.
Next week, we will go in-depth about Mobile Crisis, and how to have your child evaluated at your home same-day, as well as the option to go to a nearby Enhanced Care Clinic and be seen within two hours, two days, or two weeks depending on your child’s level of acuity.
Should you need that information now, please download my guide “Helping Our Children: Supporting Their Mental Health” at housedems.ct.gov/linehan or for download on my Facebook page at Facebook.com/RepLinehan.