Mental wellness refers to one’s emotional, psychological and social health and well-being. It helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental wellness is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.
Many things can contribute to poor mental wellness, including: biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry; life experiences, like trauma or abuse; or having a family history of mental health problems. For youth, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are known to cause mental health problems, even if those problems do not appear until later in life.
ACEs are traumatic events that occur before age 18 and are remembered into adulthood. Examples could be forms of abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction — like having an incarcerated relative or a relative with a substance use disorder. The more adverse experiences a child has growing up, the more likely he or she is to have poor mental wellness as an adult.
However, “ACE Scores” — which measure the impact of adverse experiences — do not take into account positive experiences in a child’s life that can help build resilience and protect that child from the effects of trauma.
These positive influences, often called Protective Factors, are crucial during childhood and adolescence, as they help youth develop coping mechanisms and strengthen mental wellness.
Just like with all other aspects of health, the environment in which one lives can also affect mental wellness. Here in the North Country, there are some unique risk factors to be aware of.
For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that parents of children with mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders in rural areas more often report having trouble getting by on their family’s income than parents of children with these disorders in urban areas. Furthermore, these parents more often rated their own mental wellness, or their partners’, as “fair” or “poor.”
Another local consideration deals with children of military households, who often move and are exposed to potentially stressful situations as their parents are deployed. In fact, roughly 30% of children in military households have difficulties as the result of a deployment, including depression, anxiety, decrease in academic performance, and increase in the use of drugs or alcohol.
Fortunately, there are resources available for our region’s families. For a list of local mental health services, visit www.jeffcomentalhealth.org/Services. For military families, Fort Drum offers MEDDAC Behavioral Health Services on post, and both Carthage and Indian River Central School Districts also offer behavioral health support to military families and children.
Whether you have children of your own or not, everyone in our community can play a role to foster mental wellness in youth. Here are some suggestions of how you can take action:
Parents — know the warning signs and protective factors for children at home. If there are signs and symptoms that last weeks or months and affect your child’s daily life, consult a health professional. Some, but not all, warning signs include:
- Often feeling anxious or worried
- Frequent stomachaches or headaches with no physical explanation
- Having trouble sleeping, including frequent nightmares
- Losing interest in things he/she used to enjoy
- Avoids spending time with friends
- Has low or no energy
- Harms self or others, or has thoughts of doing so
Communities — support delivery of affordable mental & behavioral health care to families, and expand neighborhood amenities to allow children safe places to play, read, and socialize. Communities can also foster policies and programs to alleviate financial hardships for families.
Youth Mental Health First Aid is a program designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors and other citizens how to help an adolescent experiencing a mental health or addiction challenge. The course introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a 5-step action plan for how to help young people in crisis and non-crisis situations.
Health Professionals — the CDC has issued the following recommendations for healthcare systems and primary clinicians:
- Explore ways to deliver affordable mental and behavioral health care services for parents and children, such as integrating these services into primary care settings and schools, as well as by using telehealth technology.
- Connect families with mental and behavioral health care, parenting and caregiver support programs, and early learning programs.
- Screen parents for stress, depression, and other mental health problems to help connect parents to the right resources.
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