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Helping parents, guardians cope with mental health struggles: ‘Taking care of yourself first'

While kids and teens are in a mental health crisis, so too are many adults. A 2021 study found that 1 in 14 children has a caregiver with poor mental health.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Anyone who has been on an airplane knows you’re supposed to put your oxygen mask first before assisting the person next to your, or even your child. Behavioral health experts say that advice can be carried over to how parents and guardians tackle mental health.

“We're not going to be able to help our kids if we're not taking care of ourselves first,” Senior Medical Director of Behavioral Health for Regence Dr. Mike Fraz said.

Raising kids comes with a whole slew of challenges, and right now many kids and teens are hurting. In 2021, the Surgeon General of the United States issued a rare warning, saying that mental health challenges were leading to “devastating effects” among young people.

According to Mental Health America’s annual report, 11.5% of youth (over 2.7 million), ages 12 through 17 are experiencing severe major depression. 

Nearly 20% of kids and teens in the U.S. have a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

“I'm a parent. I've got kids at home, and you know, we're worried,” said Franz.

Franz understands talking about mental health struggles and supporting your child can feel overwhelming. The most important thing, he said, is to just listen and be present.  

“Cut yourself some slack. You don't have to be perfect. It's OK to be human and more importantly, to show your humanity,” he said.  

While kids and teens are in a mental health crisis, so too are many adults. A 2021 study found that 1 in 14 children has a caregiver with poor mental health.

The best thing a parent, or guardian, can do for themselves is to get proactive about their own mental health. Reach out to people in their life to talk and find professional help if needed.

“Take a deep breath and make sure you're taking care of yourself first,” Franz said. “So make sure you're getting enough sleep, you're getting daily exercise, you're eating well. If you need to — get in to see a therapist to address some underlying anxiety, stress or depression, you know, please do. That's really where it starts.”

While the pandemic has broken down many of the stigmas surrounding mental health it can still be a tough subject to bring up, especially with kids. Franz said some parents may find it helpful to talk about their own mental health struggles with their kids.

Just remember to do it in a developmentally appropriate way.

“For example, with a second grader it might be something like, ‘Daddy sometimes struggles with his moods, and sometimes I don't sleep well, and sometimes I do, and that affects my behavior and sometimes how good a parent I am. And I just want you to know that I know that and I'm doing what I can to address it.,'" Franz said. 

“And then for the high school student it might be, you know, 'I just saw my psychiatrist and I do have bipolar disorder. I've started some medication and I'm doing everything I can to take care of myself,’ And then allowing the questions to come. Let the child direct it and just respond to how they’re asking questions.”

Here is the link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It will also steer you to specific resources for a variety of struggles people face. 

For more information about talking to kids and teens about mental health visit hhs.gov.

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