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Youth mental health crisis: Talking to your kids about their mental well-being

Oregon ranks as the worst in the U.S. when it comes to youth mental health illness prevalence and access to care, according to Mental Health America.

PORTLAND, Ore. — May is Mental Health Awareness Month and now more than ever it’s important to talk about it, especially with kids and teens.

“It's a national issue, but it's also a specific Oregon issue,” said Dr. Mike Franz with Behavioral Health for Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon. “In fact, it's even worse in Oregon.”  

Oregon ranks as one of the worst states in the U.S. when it comes to mental illness prevalence and access to care, according to Mental Health America’s annual report. The only state that ranks lower is Kansas.

When it comes to the mental health of our youth Oregon ranks last.

“We've got our work cut out for us here,” Franz said.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact on kids and teens. The disruption in their routines led to more isolation. That often led to more time on social media, which Franz said can have a wide range of effects.

“While social media is not all bad, I mean it does allow for some creativity and some connection — there’s increasing evidence that over the pandemic in particular, the use of social media led to such issues as cyberbullying and really idealistic images that weren't realistic in regard to body size, body type,” said Franz. “We saw an increased prevalence of eating disorders really spiked during the pandemic.”

Franz reminds adults that kids are not immune to what’s going on in the world around them. Nor are they immune to how grown-ups deal with it.

Things like climate change and the political divide have an impact on kids and teens.  

“Then there's the mass shootings. We read about it almost every day now, and there is a direct correlation between mass shootings, exposure of that awareness of that in kids, mental health status,” Franz said. “It's not lost on the kids and we as the adults and as the leaders...we need to take action to try to address that.”

So what can parents, caregivers or family members do? The first thing is just being aware; listening and paying attention.

“If you see changes in your child's routine with their sleeping, with their eating, with their energy level, there's more tearfulness for your younger kids. If there are more body complaints like stomach aches or headaches, these could be warning signs that maybe they're struggling a little bit,” Franz said.

When talking to kids and teens about their mental health it’s important to be present. Ask developmentally appropriate and open-ended questions.

“’Hey, I've noticed that maybe you have seemed a little more quiet lately. Anything you want to talk about?’ That's a way to open the conversation,” Franz said. 

“Don't be directive. Don't unload your own stuff on them, but just be available and then connect them to care if they need it.”  

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.

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