With the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (the ACA) on the horizon, the future of mental health care in America is uncertain. Under the ACA, psychiatric disorders were treated as equal to non-psychiatric medical illnesses, and health plans were required to offer coverage for behavioural disorders, medication, therapy and preventative measures. Though the newly enacted 21st Century Cures Act reinforces the laws calling for parity in mental and physical health care, a more recent executive order reducing regulation could end up crippling it — leaving many Americans unable to afford mental health care. This means many Americans will soon be unable to afford mental health care. In most of the rest of the world, this has sadly been the case for a long time too.
Some of the most at risk during this time are teens and young adults. A recent study of national trends in depression among adolescents and young adults found that the number of respondents reporting a major depressive disorder in the previous 12 months increased by 37 percent from 2005 to 2014. Unfortunately, the study also revealed that there hasn’t been an equivalent rise in mental health treatment for teens and young adults. This is indicative of a much larger problem – young people are going under- or untreated for their symptoms.
As parents, family, friends and allies, we therefore need to know how to help teens and the young people in our lives manage their mental health head-on. Here are a few ways to do that.
Be there when they need you
Having someone to reach out to is one of the best ways for young people to cope with mental illness. Teens especially are often afraid to reveal what they’re going through for fear of being judged by their peers or parents. If you’re close to a teenager or young adult affected by mental illness, the most important thing you can do is invite them to talk to you about their problems.
Invite them to take part in open and honest conversations. No arguments, no debates – simply focus on building trust and rapport. You can ask how they’re feeling, what their pain points are and exactly what they’d like from you. Reserve judgement and resist the temptation to give advice, unless they ask for it. Most importantly, listen without trying to change them or their mind.
Once you have them talking, be sure to let them know that you’re always there to listen. Ask them how you can help – if they even want help at all. Sometimes, people just need someone to talk to. If they have any requests, be honest with both them and yourself about what’s in the realm of possibility and what you can take on.
Ensure they’re aware that they’re not to blame and have no need to apologise for their illness or for feeling the way they do. This can go a long way in assuaging the guilt that people with mental illness often internalise. Acknowledge and praise their strengths and progress. Objectivity, compassion and acceptance are things they won’t necessarily receive from outside sources, so their value is beyond measure. Offer it in spades.
Teach them how to help themselves
When someone you care about is struggling with a serious mental illness, it’s natural to want to help by taking charge. However, taking on complete responsibility isn’t only impossible, it isn’t good for either of you. One of the best ways to offer both guidance and support is to aid them in learning healthy coping strategies.
Like medication and therapy, there is no “one size fits all” approach to coping strategies. What works for one person may not work for another – they are different for each individual. Some coping strategies to try are breathing-focused meditation or visualisation, exercise, creative hobbies, mindfulness, gardening and maintaining a regular schedule. Encourage your loved one to try as many as needed until they find a few that helps ease their symptoms.
Of course, there are also negative coping skills that can seem tempting to someone in pain. Drugs, excessive alcohol use, self-mutilation and other destructive behaviours are harmful to both mental and physical health. These activities are only successful in offering temporary relief – if any at all. Not only do they not solve any problems, they often exacerbate mental health issues. Make sure your loved one knows that these things are to be avoided, and if you can, lead by example.
Though medication can regulate many serious mental illnesses, it alone isn’t always enough to keep symptoms in check. Fortunately, there are other resources available, such as peer support groups and psychotherapy. You can advocate these resources as a way for a young person to take control of their mental health. Just remember: while it’s good to encourage to seek help for a disorder, it’s important to avoid being pushy or making accusations. That will only work to turn them against treatment.
You can express your concerns without scaremongering or placing blame by using “I” statements, such as “I’m worried about you. I care about you, I love you.” Stay away from “you” statements – i.e. “you need help” – instead, come at the conversation as if you were a team working to solve a problem together.
To further this, provide your loved one with a list of 2-3 practitioners you think might be a good match. Ask them to choose the one they feel most comfortable with. If they don’t like any of the options you put forward, work together to find a therapist who fits. Ask them if they’d like you to accompany them to the appointment. This may prove especially helpful to those with anxiety.
It’s incredibly important to understand that this form of healing is a process that takes both time and patience. Recovery won’t happen right away — medications often take weeks to take effect, and lifestyle changes take even longer. Continue giving your support, and take every opportunity you have to tell them you love them and that you’re there for them.