Mia Flegal tells some high school students about their anxiety and depression and the mental illness caused by children and teenagers when a student raises his hand to ask a heartbreaking question:
“What if no one believes me?”
When children struggle with their mental well-being and mental health, this may look different than in adults – and distress signals can manifest in ways that are subtle or easy to write off.
Flegal, who has just finished 10th grade at a high school in Nashua North, said she first experienced symptoms of her generalized anxiety disorder when she was about eight years old. She began to have trouble sleeping and began to notice that her anxiety made it difficult to breathe.
“It starts with this pit in my stomach,” Flegal said. “This hole in your stomach starts to creep up to your chest and you feel that someone is pressing you.
She remembers waking up in a cold sweat when she was 10 on a trip away from home. Her mother, Sheila Flegal, remembers picking her up early from a sleepy party when Mia, usually sociable and talkative, felt closed off from her anxiety.
Her classmate from Nashua North, Arica Roy, said she remembers her anxiety starting as a stomach ache when she was a fifth grader.
Erin Murphy, who is now finishing 11th grade in Windham, remembers when she came home from high school and found herself trembling, unable to stop crying and hyperventilating.
“It’s hard to say if it’s a growth phase or if it’s growing into something,” Flegal said.
Even if it’s embarrassing to think of children in primary and middle school who are struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental illnesses, Flegal said, it happens. Being able to talk about bad feelings can help.
“This cannot be a topic that is super quiet,” Flegal said.
The pandemic and growing panic over social media have highlighted the huge mental health challenges facing children and teenagers today.
According to a study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in three high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic. Half said they were constantly sad or hopeless. (cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/abes.htm)
Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is gaining a reputation for being more outspoken about mental health, but Flegal is still not sure that her peers feel comfortable talking about their mental health in a serious and serious way.
“A lot of what Gen Z does is joke about it. But joking about it is not the same as asking for help, “Flegal said. “If jokes are the first step, that’s fine, but in the end we need to encourage people to seek help.”
Help is sought
More resources are coming online to deal with acute crises, such as New Hampshire’s new Rapid Response Access Point for people in need of crisis assistance and the National Crisis Line 988, which will be activated on 16 July. And the state hopes to open more beds this fall at Hampstead Hospital for children and teens who need more intensive care.
Public community mental health centers can connect people with treatment and make connections to help other aspects of someone’s life.
Rick Cornell, vice president of community relations at the Greater Manchester Community Mental Health Center, said the center has been able to recruit staff at almost every city school to work with students and train staff, and provides similar assistance in the summer programs.
“For so many years, mental health has relaxed and is waiting for people to come to them. We don’t do that anymore, “Cornell said. “We can’t just keep collecting the pieces. We must prevent these pieces from falling apart. “
However, there are obstacles to actually receiving help.
When Arika Roy, a Flegal classmate in Nashua North, had a bad anxiety attack two years ago, Roy said her family had been trying to call therapists across New Hampshire and Massachusetts for most of the two years, but they never managed to make an appointment. with a psychologist.
Cornell said there is a huge and deteriorating shortage of psychologists, therapists and all sorts of other health professionals, but he said families with a lot of money have easier time getting therapy and other mental health care.
Many therapists are reluctant to accept health insurance because it can be difficult to persuade insurance companies to pay for their services. Cornell said some therapists are accepting new patients – as long as those patients can pay in cash.
But Cornell said the 10 New Hampshire Mental Health Centers (nhcbha.org) can help people who find they don’t have access to mental health care.
“Call us,” Cornell said. “We’ll see what we can do to get you in.”
Do it yourself
Unable to see a therapist, Roy said she had found other ways to deal with her anxiety – relying on her family’s Hindu spirituality and even browsing YouTube for videos on breathing and meditation.
Flegal said she, too, had found ways to cope.
She began keeping a diary after anxiety attacks, reworking her thoughts. In the middle of an attack, when she is stuck in a cycle of hyperventilation and crying, she counts her breaths or grabs a few ice cubes and squeezes them to “shock” her body from the cycle.
These coping mechanisms have evolved over the years, Flegal said, but she said having people to talk to – her family, her friends, trusted teachers – helped her stay on top of things.
However, during the pandemic, Flegal said, much of that support network was dropped, an experience shared by many children and adults.
Isolated from friends with limited chances of communicating with teachers as Nashua remained in distance learning for most of the 2020-21 school year, Flegal said he would roll out of bed a few minutes before class at Zoom and sit silently in front of his computer with the camera off. When she left class, she would take a shower, turn on the music, and cry.
“I was stuck in a hole,” she said. “You didn’t see the end of it and it’s so hard.” She was worried about asking for help, worried that she would somehow be a burden to her family or increase the tension at home.
But when she acknowledged that hopelessness, Flegal said, her family listened, cared, and helped.
“Reaching for help does not make you weaker and has no negative effect on the people around you,” she said.
I feel less lonely
Family members, teachers, coaches – anyone who knows a child or teenager well – can monitor and ask about behavioral changes, such as changes in sleep or hygiene, said Diana Shriver, clinical coordinator of the children’s department at the Center for Mental Health. health of Greater Manchester.
Adults can first ask questions about behavior, gently, and from there start a conversation about a young person to talk about their emotions and mental well-being.
“One of the things we’re talking about helping people do is build their sights,” Shriver said. “It may not be a crisis, but it may be a crisis in construction.
Murphy, a Windham student, remembers an eighth-grade teacher pulling her aside one day when he came to school in his pajamas and roaring hair to ask how she was. This conversation gave Murphy space to admit for the first time that not doing well.
“He asked me if I was okay, and the answer was no,” Murphy said.
She is grateful that the teacher made an effort to check.
Feeling safe talking about feelings – especially difficult feelings – is important even for younger children. Flegal said he is working with community groups to develop programs in which he can talk to younger people, talk about his mental health history and try to help other children feel comfortable talking about your own feelings.
Flegal said she is open to her mental health problems because she wants other people – especially younger children – to see that it is safe to talk about their mental health. The girl who asked what to do if no one believed she was struggling with mental health was told Flegal to keep talking.
Shriver said the same.
“I would say to this young man, don’t stop talking. Keep asking for help until you feel you are getting the help you need. ”