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Mental Health Resources Can Help Kids Cope With Pandemic Anxiety

 Sarah Miller of the National Alliance of Mental Health and her daughter Vanessa are advocates for speaking openly about mental health.
Sarah Miller of the National Alliance of Mental Health and her daughter Vanessa are advocates for speaking openly about mental health.

We speak with Sarah Miller of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Miller works with families to connect them with resources within the mental health system.

Adolescence is a time when young teenagers are supposed to be growing independent and developing social connections outside of their own families. But the pandemic has limited those opportunities to spend time with friends and for kids to build their self-esteem.

It’s no surprise then, that many parents say their teen has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the beginning of the pandemic.

Navigating the mental health system can be daunting to those that are unfamiliar with it, but many organizations can help.

Related: Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Toll On Teen Mental Health

WUSF’s Cathy Carter spoke with Sarah Miller, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Miller works with families to connect them with resources within the mental health system.

Sarah, your position is called a Family Navigator. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that is?

First and foremost, I'm someone who understands a lot of these challenges of having a child who's experienced a mental health condition. So, it helps me to understand what a lot of those barriers could be for families to connect with services in the community. Even just the reality of, OK, there's something significant happening with my child, I'm not really sure how to navigate this. Is this a phase? Is this going to go away eventually? A lot of times, it feels really overwhelming.

Sarah, we know that more kids are suffering from anxiety and depression during the pandemic. So, for the parents, what are some of the signs that they should be looking for that perhaps their child is not doing so well?

It's interesting, because one of the signs is social isolation, which has just almost become our norm now. So that could be a little bit harder to pick up on but social isolation from the family, perhaps not willing to engage as much. Is there a lack of motivation? Certainly, anything that indicates feelings of hopelessness, or perhaps just not really working toward anything for the next day. If they've been sad for a period of over two weeks, that's a really good indicator right there that it is time to seek help and to reach out to someone. And that can feel scary.

So, what are some of the actionable things that parents and other adults can do to help kids now?

The first thing a family can do is just be mindful of their own living environment, and having perhaps a sense of structure and routine. That really greatly benefits our youth. Integrate moments where the family can come together and can bond and talk about what's going on in their lives and just having that safe space in the home. But in addition, there's ways that we can stay connected as a community and NAMI has been very committed to creating creative spaces to do that. We offer virtual family support groups, for one, and then recently have been developing a youth initiative, to be able to get together at a social distance with our masks and our hand sanitizer and things like that. But where they can connect and talk about the things that matter to them and have a safe space to share.

You mentioned the term ‘safe spaces’ a couple of times there, tell us a little bit more about what that is and why it's important.

Because if there's something that feels threatening, and we're talking about the pandemic now, there's a lot that feels unsafe for a lot of people right now and if we don't have safe spaces, we're not able to operate at this higher level of like making A's in school for example, or being expected to do all of your chores, and all of these things that we had expectations of our youth prior to the pandemic. It's a different world now. And it's not to give them an excuse. But it is something that we need to understand because this has been a traumatic experience. And when you're talking about trauma, there's trauma responses. And if people are living in that part of their brain that says it's unsafe here, they're not going to be performing at that same level they were before. So, we have to create those opportunities to feel safe and to just connect and engage and being intentional about all of that so we can help youth move out of that space of fear.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7