The San Mateo County Department of Education’s “Respect 24/7” conference, held in late October, provided a sobering opportunity to hear teens talk about what they need from us as parents, teachers, school administrators. Data compiled in the County of San Mateo Adolescent Report 2014-2015 reported that 23% of high school boys surveyed had suicidal thoughts in the last month, and 38% of girls. Sadly, recent teen suicides have only served as real life examples of the grim data.
What are we doing?! And what are we going to do about it?
When asked, “In the past month, what caused you to feel nervous, depressed or emotionally stressed?”, 69% of survey respondents said school work, school projects and/or finals. Another 33% cited parents and guardians.
What can adults do that actually helps when teens are going through tough times?
Just “be there for me” was a constant request.
Ask about their whole lives, not just homework and tests and college entrance requirements.
1. Teens often don’t know where the resources are, even resources on their own high school campuses. More effective messaging will help reach teens, who are the end consumers of these services. (Parents can help, too. Talk with your teen about what’s available, where people can get help, etc. Show (rather than tell) them that you know how to listen with respect, curiosity and empathy.
2. Teens want to solve their own problems, and often think, “If I can solve it on my own, why wouldn’t I?”
3. Many times the resources and people that are available – counselors, teachers, etc. – are not the people teens want to turn to. As one teen said, “It’s also about how you want to be perceived.”
4. Teens will likely turn to their peers first. That was really poignant: kids trying to help their friends deal with serious issues like eating disorders, self-harm, and substance abuse.
5. Teens “know” that mental health “should” be a priority, but other things often take priority: their social lives, homework, the event of the moment.
6. A desire for more preventative mental health resources – Parents reported that too often, their kid had to be in crisis to be eligible for services.
Many teens on the panel felt their parents were supportive, but their overall complaint was still, “We have so much on our plates”.
No parent wants their kid to have to navigate this stuff alone.
Given the rash of suicides in our area, the competitive pressures, and the statistics presented in the report, it’s time for adults to really listen.
As Martha Cabot, a young Gunn High student said in response to another suicide on November 4, “It shouldn’t take a suicide for the system to do something about the stress level and homework load at school. As 15,16, 17, 18 year old kids, there is not much we can do but spread awareness. So please share this video...” Henry M Gunn High School: 1 More Suicide Preventable”
So take a deep breath and listen. Take a step back and let go of the things that aren’t really that important. Trust your teen to find her way, making some mistakes along the way – just like you did. Make sure the message of love gets through.
In short, be there. Your teen needs you now more than ever.