Written with Ellen Utley
For so many young people and their families September is a time associated with the invigorating feeling of setting off for a new school year with renewed focus, new opportunities, rekindled friendships and the promise of increasing independence. For adults and parents, there’s a sense of reward as we watch the next generation learn and take charge of their lives.
So why start a conversation about mental health and suicide prevention this time of year?
Because mental health conditions are common, stress is common and unexpected changes in life are common; and sadly, the toll of mental health conditions and suicide on our youth is heavy. Because engaging in an ongoing conversation about mental health with our young people will reinforce the sense of connectedness, promote emotional well-being and provide valuable information. Talking about it helps -– it gives a young person the skills and knowledge to help themselves.
The sad truth is that every year in the U.S., thousands of teens and young adults die by suicide -– it is the second leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds, and 1 in 5 youth and young adults experiences a mental health condition.
Going away to college can be a very exciting and enriching time of life, but it’s also common to feel stress, loneliness, depression, anxiety, overwhelmed, misunderstood, tired, disappointed, and pressured, not to mention feeling unprepared for unexpected changes in a relationship or things at home.
It is not only good, but healthy to start a conversation with a young adult who is away at school about managing emotions and relationships and to discuss how important it is to address problems before they become unmanageable. It is also important to encourage reaching out to others who might be in crisis, and important to offer assurance that getting help early promotes recovery and reduces risk for suicide.
If our communities, health care providers and families approach the topic of mental health with our young people with the same regularity and candor that we address other life topics, we’d go a long way toward preparing them to recognize, respond to, and take action in times of emotional distress for themselves or a friend. It could be so powerful if emotional issues were discussed among us as openly and routinely as winter break plans or the choice of a major. Given the complexities of learning to successfully navigate life independently, it is important for a young person to know what to expect and to know how to get help if needed –- the way to do that is to talk about it in our homes, offices and at our schools.
It’s best to initiate the conversation about mental health early, and have it often. Keep the lines of communication open through the school year. Talking about emotional health will help young people understand the difference between emotions that go with everyday living and those that might indicate a more serious condition.
Most colleges and universities have programs that promote mental health, and services for counseling and assistance with managing emotional health conditions. Talk about how the upcoming school year might bring personal and academic challenges and how problems might be handled. A conversation about resources will allow them to be prepared for the unexpected; it will help them know what to do if they are struggling or if a friend is in crisis, and help them take action when a current mental health condition worsens.
If you’d like some information about how to initiate a conversation about mental health with a person going off to college, there are resources to tap into. A good place to start is the new guide “Starting the Conversation – College and Your Mental Health” prepared by NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and JED (The Jed Foundation). This guide provides information about starting a conversation that will effectively communicate how important it is for college students and families to learn more about mental health, to talk about mental health, and to better understand health information privacy laws and rules.