Helping Parents support Youth Mental Health
Is my teenager’s mood and behaviour perfectly normal, or is there a problem with their mental health?
These are common questions among parents and guardians. Across the world, there is evidence that young people face greater struggles with their mental health than previous generations. The causes are complex and contested, with earlier onset puberty, social media and information overload, a lack of resilience all blamed to some degree.
During and post-Covid, students also missed out on many of the normal rites of passage and may have lost relatives or friends to the virus. Teachers and student leaders in Ireland have reported a further spike in mental health difficulties among young people, while a survey for Healthy Ireland of 7,454, interviewed between October 2020 and March 2021, found that 60% of under-25s experienced at least one negative change to their mental health as a result of the pandemic.
Professor Eilis Hennessy, a professor in developmental psychology at UCD School of Psychology, has not only researched these questions but, along with colleagues, has also compiled accessible resources to empower parents and guardians who want to help their children. These have included a series of evidence-based webinars and a suite of new material, including a social media campaign, developed with RTÉ.
“Previous work, carried out by my colleague Dr Daráine Murphy, looked at what it is like to be the parent of a young person who is highly distressed, and how they could get help,” Professor Hennessy says. “The focus of this study was on the challenges of accessing help and support.
It transpired that, for a lot of parents, they only realised that they were dealing with a more serious problem when there was an incident of self-harm or a suicide attempt.
“In another study, carried out with Áine French, psychology PhD student and research assistant, we looked at the needs of over 120 parents of an adolescent who had self-harmed, what a parent would want to know, and what professionals thought a parent would and should need to know.”
These two studies, both of which received grant funding, have helped to lay the groundwork for Hennessy’s latest project. Funded by the National Office for Suicide Prevention and developed in association with Pieta and researchers at Maynooth University, the end result will be a reliable, trustworthy resource with information on what parents can do to support teenagers who self-harm, and how they can get help.
“Many parents said that they were desperate to hear the stories of other parents,” says Eilis. Parents want to be protective of their child’s privacy, while also needing reassurance that these things happen – and not just to other people.”
It is very distressing to have a young person who is upset, but sometimes people can be reluctant to talk about it, as they feel it is like divulging personal information that is not their own
Among the most distressing experiences for parents are suicide attempts that seem to strike out of the blue, where they parents didn’t know their teenager was suffering. Or, their teenager may tell them of a suicide attempt that they made some time back, where the parent did not know. Other times, a teenager may experience a sudden onset of psychosis (a disruption that causes a person to lose touch with reality, or for their experience of reality to be warped or changed) and this can be very upsetting for a parent, particularly compared to anxiety that may build over time.”
Hennessy says that, despite reports of escalating mental health problems, most do not reach the threshold of being a mental disorder.
“Distress, yes; upset, yes. But these can be helped without clinical intervention or a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), where only a small percentage of children will meet the referral threshold. By seeking help at an earlier stage – and knowing that they are not alone – before problems escalate, parents can do a lot of good.
“If, for instance, a young person has a high level of social anxiety, they may be staying at home and not going out with their friends. A big part of adolescence is what you learn from being with your peer group, but you miss out on this if you are spending too much time at home, and this can escalate distress.”
But is the help there?
“We have heard from parents of the real difficulty in finding help,” says Eilis. “Parents say that they see their role primarily as advocates, going out and looking for information, knocking on every door and going to different services. When parents have more than one child and when they have to work as well, it can be very difficult on siblings and other family members. And not all parents will know how to get help or who they should be chasing down, and it can be very difficult on siblings and other family members.
“Internationally, there is a move to provide resources for schools to support young people as part of a wider perspective that incorporates their physical, emotional, sexual and mental health. There are so many pressures on young people today, and so much to worry about in the news: war in Europe, climate change, biodiversity.
“Our resources aim to give parents hints and tips about how they can help, ways that they may be able to reassure the young person, and advice on what might not be helpful. We reassure parents that they are not to blame. We advise that this is okay to talk about, and that the channels of communication should be as open as possible, while the parent tries to stay calm and lower the emotional tone.”
Professor Eilis Hennessy was in conversation with Peter McGuire (BA 2002, MLitt 2007), a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Irish Times and to Noteworthy, the investigations unit at TheJournal.ie.