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Rebecca Geist: Keeping kids safe

Most of us worry about our children’s behavior at some point. We wonder whether moodiness or angry responses to our questions are normal adolescence or something deeper.

While it may be an important time for youth to take risks, examine their identity and learn responsibility, it’s also a challenging time for parents to determine when to get involved, when to take a step back and when a worry should be acted on.

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Adolescence and early adulthood is a crucial stage for fostering emotional and mental health. About 75 percent of adults with lifetime mental health disorders report their symptoms began in adolescence or early adulthood. The same adults report it took an average of eight to 10 years between the onset of their symptoms and the time they received treatment.

These adults may have recovered more easily and quickly if they received care earlier.

Adolescents may face more stress than parents and caring adults realize. In a nationally representative survey of 12- to 17-year-olds, 39 percent reported witnessing violence, 17 percent reported experiencing physical assault and 8 percent reported sexual assault in their lifetimes.

In a 2014 survey of students in Yamhill County, 31 percent of eighth-graders and 25 percent of 11th-graders reported being bullied on school property during the past year. Traumatic experiences such as bullying, harassment, witnessing violence, assaults and other scary situations add up over time.

Untreated trauma can lead to negative impacts on mental and physical health as well as detrimental social outcomes such as academic failure, drug abuse, truancy and delinquency. Exposure to childhood trauma may lead to depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Mental health symptoms are not uncommon in adolescence. As many as 26 percent of Yamhill County eighth- and 11th-graders reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more, to the point those feelings led them to stop participating in usual activities. In a national survey, 8 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in Oregon met the criteria for a major depressive episode at the time of the survey.

Most crucially, 11 percent of 11th-graders and 14 percent of eighth-graders in Yamhill County reported considering suicide in the past year. In 2013, according to the Oregon Vital Statistics County Data, suicide was the ninth leading cause of death for Oregonians. Obviously, our youth are at risk.

Yamhill County is making great strides in expanding services for youth behavioral health. Our Mental Health First Aid training, directed toward school staff and other community members, claims part of that success. The goal is to identify children and adolescents who are developing signs and symptoms of mental illness or an emotional crisis, and to keep them safe from self-harm.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Rebecca Geist is Yamhill County’s prevention coordinator and has been with the county for 14 years. Driven by a passion for creating healthier communities, she has a master’s degree in business and healthcare administration. She lives in Newberg with her husband, Rich, and their two sons.

Participants in the training become familiar with risk factors and warning signs of suicide:

- Suicide threats.

- Previous suicide attempts.

- Alcohol or drug abuse.

- Statements revealing a desire to die.

- Sudden changes in behavior.

- Prolonged depression.

- Making final arrangements.

- Giving away prized possessions.

- Purchasing a gun or stockpiling pills.

At the core of the training is a five-step action plan, reinforced by role-playing and simulations. Suicide is preventable, participants learn. They receive answers to key questions like “What can I do?” and “Where can someone find help?” They take home materials to guide them through the five steps and are given a comprehensive workbook with helplines that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week; names and physical addresses of local mental health providers; and websites. These contacts will help connect young people to appropriate services: professional, peer, social and self-help.

Participants in the course also learn what not to do. Dismissing behavior as “typical teenager” or ignoring problems can lead to a preventable tragedy. Instructors emphasize that we need to pay attention to others’ possible mental health issues, especially in children.

Participants are not expected to learn to diagnose, or how to provide therapy or counseling. But they become familiar with situations that can cause mental health disorders. Of course, bullying, violence and trauma are triggers. But other stressful circumstances also can wield long-term damage to youth mental health, such as being shamed, excessively high parental expectations, constant criticism about weight, grades, etc.

Without intervention, child and adolescent disorders frequently continue into adulthood, sometimes leading to poor employment possibilities, poverty or adult suicide. No other illnesses damage so many children so seriously.

The Mental Health First Aid course is helping adolescents and their local families get the help they need. Anyone interested in taking the course may sign up at Yamhill County Public Health (see box above).

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But we can always do more to ensure young people don’t have to wait eight or more years to have their mental health needs recognized and treated. Here are some suggestions.

- We can make sure that we know the youths in our lives, by greeting them in the neighborhood, asking about their interests, letting them know we expect them to succeed as students and community members, and that we are proud of their accomplishments.

- We can stop dismissing our concerns as “just typical teenager moodiness” or guessing a risky behavior is “testing limits.”

- As parents, we can reach out for help when we become worried that our child has a mental health concern, just as we would with a visible physical health issue.

- As a community, we must work to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health disorders, and support families fighting for the healthy development of their child or teenager. To reduce stigma, normalize your conversations about mental health. Kids want to fit in; normalizing conversations about mental illnesses makes an early intervention more likely.

For instance, when a diabetic has a blood sugar issue, we ask about it and seek help for the sufferer. Mental health is a medical issue, too, a part of people’s physical health. Normalizing means asking about what you are observing, talking about the subject openly. Obtaining help is feasible, just as it is for other chronic diseases. Anyone with a mental illness needs our encouragement and support to get the help so desperately needed.

We must make supporting the younger people in our lives a top priority. When youth know they are supported, they are more likely to seek help early, before a crisis develops. 

 

Mental health services

If you need mental health services for yourself:


- Contact your primary care provider.


- Ask your insurance provider.


- Visit Yamhill County’s Health and Human Services website, hhs.co.yamhill.or.us.


If you are concerned about someone else:


- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255.


- Call the local crisis services number, 503-434-7523, or 1-800-560-5535 after hours.


- Contact Rebecca Geist at 503-434-7382 or geistb@co.yamhill.or.us.


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