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Léman Preparatory School Hosts Panel on Student Mental Health

Léman Preparatory School Hosts Panel on Student Mental Health

Panelists discussed how kids’ mental health is affected by social media, race, and sexuality, and how parents can approach talking to their kids about their mental health.

Léman Manhattan Preparatory School brought its parents together for a panel on student mental health on Jan. 16 in the Financial District, a panel the school created after parents and educators called for more information on how to create and monitor mental health in their children. Panelists included Cynthia Germanotta, the president and founder of the Born This Way Foundation (and Lady Gaga’s mom!); Maya Enista Smith, the executive director of Born This Way; Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber, founder and director of the Columbia University Lighthouse Project; Jane Clementi of the Tyler Clementi Foundation; Dr. Adam Gonzalez of Stony Brook University; and Dr. Jeffrey Gardere of Touro College. Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s education correspondent, moderated the panel.

Kamenetz began the discussion by acknowledging the fear many parents in the room might be experiencing around mental health.

“We’re here to talk about something scary, but nothing changes until we start talking about it,” she said. “What’s most disturbing is silence.”


Factors Contributing to Heightened Mental Health Issues in Kids

Each panelist has his or her own experience with mental health and children. They discussed the factors that might lead to a communication breakdown between parents and children, including mental health stigma, a lack of knowledge about mental health resources, and the generational differences between the way today’s kids and their parents experience mental health.

“I made mistakes with my daughter,” Germanotta said. “I didn’t understand the difference between the development of a teenager and a true warning sign. And there are intergenerational differences: I came from “the school of true grit”; you suck it up and move on. But that’s not the way this generation exists.”

While teenagers can be moody in general, warning sides that your child might be experiencing a mental health issue such as depression include falling grades, a loss of interest in her favorite activities, and feelings of isolation and agitation. But Clementi countered that her son Tyler showed no outward signs of depression before he took his own life in 2010, after experiencing ruthless bullying in college because of his sexuality. Rather than look for signs, look for ways your child might be hiding what he’s feeling.

Stigma around talking about mental health is very real, and even realer in communities of color, Dr. Gardere explained. Many kids of color might feel heightened anxiety–and it might be particularly hard to talk about.

“We’re seeing record rates of depression and PTSD in young black men. And we’re not going to see these men talking about it. What we might see is isolation, because of that stigma against talking about it and appearing ‘weak,’” Gardere said. “If you appear ‘weak’ in some of these environments, you’re at a bigger risk of violence–they see this in poverty, in police brutality, on television. All of these things are increasing the anxiety levels of many of our children, but particularly our children of color. What you see on the outside may not be indicative of the turmoil on the inside.

For those of you who don’t have children of color, you need to teach your children empathy,” he said.


Talking to Your Children About Mental Health

Many Léman parents asked how they can best communicate with their kids about what they might be going through. The panelists offered several tips and strategies for dealing with everything from cyberbullying to feelings of inadequacy and confusion.

Show your kids you’re not perfect–and they don’t have to be. “We are not modeling the behavior that we ask of our children. I spend so much time acting as though I’ve got it all figured out,” Smith said. “Young people feel like parents equate mental health struggles with having failed as parents.” Instead of looking to see what you’ve done wrong to get your kid to this point, take a step back and tell your child that his feelings are valid.

“We put up this performance for our kids,” Kamenetz said. “Being able to open up about [your] struggling is important.”

Take care of yourself before you take care of your family. You can’t help your kids get better if you’re not okay yourself.

Be specific when asking questions about mental health. Talk about emotions and have open conversations [early on] with your kids, Dr. Gonzalez said. Encourage them to open up to you. And if you’re concerned about their mental health and safety, asking something like, ‘Are you thinking of harming yourself?’ saves lives–it doesn’t put ideas in your child’s head, Dr. Gerstenhaber added.

Accept that your child might have a mental health issue, and make a plan of action. “A lot of us have issues even admitting that our child might have mental health issues,” Dr. Gardere said. “’Not my child. Not in my backyard.’ But if we’re able to break out of that denial, we can save our children.” Once you’ve concluded your child might need help, taking her to a health professional is a good idea–but make sure the professional can take the time to get to know your child and what she’s going through.

Remember that while medication is not the answer for every child, it might be useful. However, no child should be on psychiatric medications without counseling, and parents should go with kids to that counseling, Dr. Gardere said.

Dr. Gerstenhaber pointed out that while bringing kids to medical professionals to evaluate mental health is an important step, 50 percent of people who have taken their own lives have seen their primary care physician in the month before their deaths.

“We need to ask kids [about mental health] the way we talk about a sprained ankle,” Gerstenhaber says. “We know that when kids are suffering, they want to be asked about it…Parents, teachers, and coaches should be equipped. When you ask about it and there’s no stigma around it, it’s a way to connect.”

Monitor your child’s devices–but don’t just take them away when something goes wrong. “If you’re on your child’s iPad or iPhone and you see something that doesn’t feel right, talk about it,” Clementi says. “Look outward. Make sure you have conversations. Taking a device away is not the answer to a cyberbulling problem.”

Parents with different communication styles must to reach an agreement. Communicate with your partner if you were raised differently when it comes to talking about emotions, for example, to figure out what is best for your kids.

“Get uncomfortable. The panelists also had a discussion with Léman students before the panel took place. Many kids said they don’t want to talk their parents about mental health for fear of how it might be interpreted–but at the same time, they want their parents to dig in and ask questions.

“The world is such a scary place,” one student said. “I know it’s scary, but I can feel your fear in how you talk to me and how you talk about me.” Give your child the tools to digest the scary things that are happening in the world at her own pace, and let her know she can come to you with questions.

Remember–there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Panelists encouraged parents to remember that there is nothing wrong with their children having anxiety, depression, or any mental health issue. Removing the stigma from the situation and asking your kids about how they’re feeling, being open and honest, remembering that mental illness is brain-based, just like other illnesses, and being aware of all the ways you can help can start to break down the barriers between generations.  

“Suicide kills more firefighters than fire, more police than crime,” Dr. Gerstenhaber said. “But there is hope. There is help.”

To find resources and information on how to talk to your kids about mental health, visit the Born This Way Foundation’s website, brush up on the Columbia Protocol, or speak to a health care professional. Germanotta said that many kids prioritize their mental health, but when they’re feeling down, they don’t know where to go, or who to talk to. These resources make it easier to be the person your child and others can look to for help–and your empathy and understanding could save lives.

Main Image: Credit Brian Hatton

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Jacqueline Neber

Author: Jacqueline Neber is a social journalism MA candidate at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. When she’s not reporting, you can find her petting someone else’s dog. See More

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