Listen to our children: Empower youth through mental health awareness

13 December 2023

Every week, I conduct a special book review with my daughters, encouraging them to share their favorite page from a book and explain why they enjoyed that particular excerpt. During a recent review of a health-related children’s book, our conversation led to them expressing fear about the upcoming flu season possibly turning into another COVID-19 pandemic. They asked if schools would be shut down again and if they might lose touch with their friends.

It was heartbreaking to hear that my children were still grappling with the emotional impact of the pandemic, carrying fears of its recurrence. While they were excited about fall/winter and the holidays, they also expressed genuine concern and anxiety about the potential disruptions the season might bring.

This timely discussion with my children served as a reminder of the need to continue monitoring our children’s physical and mental health. As a mother, a practicing health equity advocate and a doctor, I am passionate about sharing health literacy with often overlooked communities, including people of color and underserved demographics. Within these populations, it is crucial to listen to and truly hear our children’s concerns to alleviate fears and improve overall health outcomes.

Mental Health America recently released its annual State of Mental Health in America Report, revealing that more than 2.5 million children are living with severe major depression. Even more shocking is that 60 percent of youth with major depression receive no mental health treatment. The report further underscores the medical community’s concerns about the rising rates of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.

In my clinic, I see pediatric patients exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression due to stress. These symptoms include hair pulling, overeating, stomach pains, headaches, social withdrawal, reduced eye contact, engaging in risky behaviors and vaping (which damages the lungs) as a coping mechanism for challenges at home and outside. They witness their parents losing jobs, face inflation, experience wars, social injustice, bullying and feel pressured by social media.

It’s essential that with my children and my patients, I listen to them and do not dismiss physical symptoms of emotional stress and mental health-related conditions. We must remove the narrative of “it’s their age” or “they are just going through a phase.”

New pains and changes in behaviors resulting from stress could be rooted in health conditions. If left untreated or ignored, symptoms of chronic stress could lead to serious physical health conditions and diseases in children, including weight gain and diabetes, which are now being diagnosed at earlier ages.

Ways to Help

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, we can start addressing the growing youth mental health crisis by creating more avenues to engage with our children without judgment or dismissal. Doing so can help break down communication barriers and offer deeper insight into the moments triggering stress.

1. Bond over books: My weekly book reviews with my children have been an excellent way to spend quality time and understand their world. Reading also allows children to explore their imagination in a safe space. My dad, for example, who was an avid reader, said books allowed him to escape and cope with the realities of extreme poverty during the Great Depression when food and resources were scarce for his family.

2. Introduce new activities: Engaging in new activities, even if uncomfortable, can help you connect with your child. It doesn’t have to be costly; coloring together or taking a walk with the dog can present new opportunities for conversation.

3. Be curious: I often lead with curiosity when speaking with my pediatric patients and my children, asking open-ended questions. Leave judgment aside when listening to their responses and encourage them to share more.

4. Eye-to-eye connection: There is power in eye contact to foster connections and create a parallel conversation. Additionally, when conflicts arise between siblings or another child, encourage them to look at each other and express their feelings. Open conversation is key — it allows each person a platform to share how they feel.

5. Emphasize the positive: Help build children up with positive affirmations to create a wall that counters negativity, giving them something to hold onto as they navigate each day. Encourage them to write or draw affirmations such as “I am strong, smart, beautiful, compassionate.” This provides optics into how they truly feel about themselves.

Being mindful of your child’s mental health enables a real-time understanding of their needs and challenges. Moreover, as we continue conversations about health equity for all, it’s imperative to ensure the inclusion, attentive listening and genuine acknowledgment of our children. Their voices and experiences are invaluable in shaping a more equitable and compassionate world.

Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell is a board-certified, family medicine physician practicing urgent care medicine. She is based in Reno, where she serves as the medical director for Saint Mary’s Medical Group as well as the medical director for the Washoe County Sexual Assault Response Team and is founder of Beyond Clinical Walls. Additionally, Curry-Winchell is a regular national medical correspondent and TEDx speaker

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