For Teens, the Challenges To Getting Mental Health Help May Start at Home

Many teens are not receiving the mental health support they need, and the barriers to doing so may start at home, according to a recent survey from the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and YouGov.

Researchers conducted focus groups and surveyed a nationally representative sample of 500 parents and teens ages 13-17 about the ways they discuss mental health at home. Of the teens surveyed, almost a third were receiving counseling or therapy for mental health concerns. Among those who were not, 1 in 3 thought they would have benefited from it but were either embarrassed to talk to a professional about their feelings, uncomfortable in bringing up the need to their parents, or thought their parents would not think they needed it.

When asked further about their level of comfort discussing mental health with their parents, 33 percent of teens said they felt the least comfortable talking about their emotions, 31 percent said they felt least comfortable talking about anxiety, and 30 percent talking about depression.

The parents surveyed also acknowledged significant challenges to having these conversations at home. A total of 27 percent of parents said they felt unprepared to talk about suicide prevention, 23 percent felt unprepared to talk about depression, and 19 percent about anxiety.

“We wanted to uncover what parents are comfortable with, what teens are comfortable with, and where they may need a little bit of support in terms of how to effectively communicate about mental health,” Dr. Andy Pool, research scientist at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication and lead study author, tells SheKnows.

“There were a few surprises for me,” says Dr. Pool. “There’s this prevailing notion that this generation of teens in particular is very comfortable talking about mental health, but what we saw on the survey is that there are still some challenges and parents, teens, and professionals need strategies to talk about these issues,” he adds.

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Dr. Dina Romo, an adolescent medicine specialist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, who was not involved in the study, agrees. “[Talking about mental health] really is something that should be normalized across settings,” she tells SheKnows. “Everyone has the right intention in mind,” adds Dr. Romo, who also leads the School Based Health Program at NewYork- Presbyterian Hospital. Still, she says, people may struggle when it comes to destigmatizing mental health conversations, and they may not know how to talk about it in practice.

The team at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication is uniquely positioned to offer guidance. The new survey was published alongside a set of strategies to improve communication at home. These include creating an environment that is conducive to communication, supporting teens in finding healthy ways to express their emotions, recognizing signs of depression, learning to manage stress and anxiety, and supporting teens to seek professional help.

“We wanted to leave parents and teens with a few strategies they may be able to implement in their daily lives to make these conversations a little bit easier to have,” says Dr. Pool.

Romo, who often acts as a broker between parents and their teens in her practice, realizes it requires a significant level of awareness to create space and start conversations early. “But it’s also never too late to implement some of these strategies,” says Dr. Romo. “You’d be surprised at how much headway we can start making,” she added.

Editor’s note: Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez is a practicing pediatrician at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, a contributing editor to SheKnows, and a mom to an active toddler.

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