“I can’t tell you what’s wrong! I don’t know what is wrong with me. I know I have a great life. I know I should be happy but I am not. I’m just not, okay?!”
Kari (not her real name) suffers like thousands of teens her age but can’t explain why. Everyone thinks she has it made but she is struggling from day to day. How can parents, youth workers, and pastors help?
1. Don’t Let Teens Suffer Alone. Kari’s Story.
Kari can’t sleep. She putters around her room in the night as everyone else sleeps. As others wind down she gets wound up. Her thoughts race. There’s a phrase playing over and over endlessly in her head. She would never share it with anyone. Feeling like she is crawling out of her own skin, she desperately fights the urge to jump in her car and drive the highway till sunrise. She doesn’t know why and can’t explain to anyone why she cannot sleep. She is frightened that she is going “crazy.” She has lost hope that she will ever be “normal” again.
She tells her friends she has insomnia. Emotionally and physically exhausted all day long, she feels like she is going to tear up any minute. There is pain in her smile as she just tries to go about her day. Some days she says she is sick and stays in bed till noon.
Kari’s parents are desperate to help. They have tried vitamin B and Melatonin. They have tried to stop her from napping during the day. They have threatened taking away her car. With frightened looks on their faces and hearts breaking they ask, “Kari, tell us what’s wrong? Is everything okay at school.. with your friends and your teachers? What’s wrong?”
How can Parents and Others help? Interview with Tanya Rust
Over Face Book, I contacted Tanya Rust who is pursuing a Master of Arts in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Spirituality at Saint Paul University. She explains:
As a counselling intern, most of my job revolves around listening. That may sound simple, but actively listening to another person requires you to be 100% present, to focus only on what they’re sharing, and not let your mind wander off to what you would like to have for supper.
When it comes to teens, they often have much to say, you just have to ask the right questions. The key however is to listen -(as parents, that may be difficult at times!) that’s how the lines of communication will stay open.
The more your teen realizes that you actually want to hear what they have to say, the safer they will feel in coming to talk with you- even if it’s to chat about how the day went.
That way, when the tougher parts of life begin impacting their lives, they know they can come to you for support and counsel.
Having teens talk about their anxieties around graduating, or the emptiness that they feel because their friends stopped talking to them, are very real realities for them. They’re just looking for someone to step in and stay with them for a while– what a privilege if that ‘someone’ could be you!
An app that talks about mental health and other topics related to teens is called Transitions by teenmentalhealth.org (It’s free!). They also have informative YouTube videos on the brain, depression and ADHD, just to name a few.
As Tanya says, be open and do not provide simple meaningless pat answers –it’s any thing but simple. The range of problems can be very long. It may be wise to have a student speak with a trained counselor who can assess if it is any of the following disorders.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Attacks –situational
- Situational Depression
- Clinical Depression
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Bipolar Disorder
2. Remove the Stigma
One of the reasons that teens or adults will not ask for help is because of label that goes with mental illness. This can be a problem in the church as well where it can be seen as a spiritual problem. Here are some suggestions from health care professionals that will help those around us feel more comfortable to talk about their issues with us.
- We need to think of mental illness as other kinds of disabilities. Would we think differently about someone if they had a broken leg or severe migraines?
- We need to speak of mental illness with kindness and understanding. Discrimination against those who struggle with mild or serious mental illness is as bad as racial, or sexist discrimination. The way to end it in our circle of influence is by the respect with which we speak to and about people with a disorder.
- We cannot demonize mental illness and need to treat it the same way as chronic bronchitis or back pain. When I am over tired or I have a headache I do not exude the joy of the Lord. Despite what others may think, I am not demonized. In the same way that physical pain will affect my mood mental illness can have an affect on a teens emotions and outlook. We are instructed in scripture to pray for those who are ill, but physical or emotional healing isn’t guaranteed.
- We cannot label or limit those with mental illness. When mental illness properly managed through counselling, medication, and lifestyle no one can tell the difference.
- We cannot view medications as evil. There is strong resistance to medications by the person struggling with mental illness and their families. It is understandable. In the past some medications were not helpful and had side effects. Much research has gone into safer more effective medications. If we view mental illness like diabetes or high blood pressure we can see the how reasonable medication is to the overall health of the individual.
Keep Learning and Keep Helping
No one can take mental health for granted. All of us could struggle at some point in our life. Teens need extra care in the sensitive time of adolescent development. It’s not always easy to say or do the right thing. If you have a teen in your home or if you work with teens, this would be a good area to read up on. Watch for the signs and keep lines of communication open.
Happily, in Kari’s case, with a supportive family, counselling, medication, and a few life style changes, you wouldn’t know that she ever had a problem.