Modeling mental health

Published 11:35 am Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Promoting the mental health of our youth should be a high priority for us in the 21st century. Over the past few years in Shelby County we have experienced the extreme consequences of mental illness and death in the form of suicide among young people in our community.

Although suicide can be seen as relatively rare, mental illness is not. In fact, it is more common than the most prevalent physical disorders of childhood. An extensive study recently conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that about 20 percent of adolescents have experienced severe impairment in their lives due to mental illness.

In addition, when you look at the general prevalence of mental illness in the United States, 18-25 year olds are hit the hardest. It seems that those of us working with youth in our community, whether children or young adults, have a special responsibility (and opportunity) to promote the mental health of those we serve in very intentional ways.

One important strategy to accomplish this is to make individuals who interact with young people aware of some basic early signs related to mental illness. Some of these include changes in personal hygiene, appetite, weight and sleep patterns. Other signs we should pay attention to include social withdrawal, fearfulness, not enjoying activities they once did, self-injurious behavior, signs of physical abuse and feelings of hopelessness.

These signs need to be taken in context, particularly with children. Sometimes it’s appropriate to be anxious or sad. However, you should never ignore talk about killing one’s self or a preoccupation with death.

Communication in these circumstances is key. Talk to the person about what you hear them saying and enlist the help of a mental health professional. Let them know you care and that help is available.

Another thing that all of us can do with no special training is model balance. This means letting young people see us at home and work relaxing, engaging in activities we enjoy, exercising and generally taking time to care for ourselves.

Helping our children and students learn how to handle the stress we encounter on a daily basis is probably the most important preventative mental health skill we can provide.

Kimberly Barrett is the vice president of student affairs at the University of Montevallo.