‘All hands on deck,’ Pediatrician explains importance of caring for adolescent mental health

Summer break is now here and kids are spending a lot more time at home with family.
Updated: Jun. 3, 2022 at 4:00 PM CDT
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DOTHAN, Ala. (WTVY) - Mental health is a concern across the nation, including the Wiregrass. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescents Psychiatry published a national emergency on children’s mental health in Fall of 2021.

Dr. Nola Ernest is the Vice President of the Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is also a pediatrician at Enterprise Pediatric Clinic. She shares the pre-COVID statistics when it comes to adolescent mental health concern.

“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three high schoolers reported they were feeling hopelessness or sadness and one in five high schoolers reported that they had seriously considered suicide,” Dr. Ernest tells News 4.

Those numbers are high, but they grew even higher immediately after the pandemic. Dr. Ernest said there was a dramatic increase as early as April of 2020 with rates of people presenting to the ER for psychiatry emergencies.

With this dramatic increase, experts are now asking everyone to be aware of the signs and play a part in being there for these children.

“This is an all hands on deck opportunity for our communities to help recognize families and children that are in need and help find ways to connect them to community resources,” Dr. Ernest said.

Summer break is now here and kids are spending a lot more time at home with family. Health officials encourage families to take this time to invest in their mental health, together.

Dr. Ernest said caring for mental health is just as important as caring for physical health.

“Things to help keep us mentally healthy are also taking care of our physical body, making sure to provide regular meals, making sure to drink plenty of water, making sure to get adequate sleep,” Dr. Ernest said.

Additionally, Dr. Ernest said limiting screen time and having a regular routine can be helpful.

“Having regular routines and rituals with the family like Summer vacations or just as simple as family meals,” Dr. Ernest said. “Having family meals really does help build up resilience in children. Having those routines in place can really make a big difference.”

Building that resiliency is crucial and so are knowing the signs and symptoms of concern.

“When you miss out on the signs and symptoms of children struggling with their mental, behavioral or emotional health, those problems can escalate,” Dr. Ernest said. “So, early recognition and treatment is important.”

Dr. Ernest said while some signs of a child struggling with their mental health have been normalized, they don’t need to be.

“Irritability, or being withdrawn, not wanting to participate with the family and family activities or not wanting to participate with [their] friends in friend activities, those types of behaviors are not normal,” Dr. Ernest said.

The first thing to do when your concerned about your child is to talk to them.

“This is one of those times that just spending 15 minutes in conversation with somebody can be lifesaving,” Dr. Ernest said.

A conversation that can be difficult, but vital.

“Children will tell you what they are feeling, they are just waiting to be asked,” Dr. Ernest said. “It is even okay to ask the question, ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’ that is absolutely okay. Now if they answer the question ‘Yes,’ that they are thinking about hurting themselves, then you want to get them help urgently.”

Mental health problems are more prevalent in teenagers, so if you are seeing these signs Dr. Ernest encourages an evaluation.

If you believe your child is struggling with their mental or behavioral health, you can call the Alabama PIRC line at (205)638-7472.

Click here to read more about PIRC.

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