A good way to beat stigma of our kids' mental health issues? TALK ABOUT IT

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By Cassandra West

Michael Baig gives his daughter, Jenna, a lot of credit for knowing she needed help when anxiety overwhelmed her.

It was during the first semester of her junior year at OPRF, when Jenna, who recently turned 18, started having panic attacks. One day as Christmas break approached, she went to the girl's restroom and called her mom. She was crying and didn't know why. 

"I don't know what's going on," Jenna told her mom. "I'm completely freaking out. Everything is overwhelming me. I'm shaking like a leaf. You told me if I ever needed help, I could reach out. Can you come pick me up from school?"

When it was time to return to school after break, Jenna told her parents she couldn't go back. She also said, "I know there are options. I gotta see somebody. I need some help." 

The Baigs took Jenna to a therapist. Eventually she received inpatient care at a treatment center in Hinsdale, then did an intensive outpatient program. She ended up missing the entire second semester of her junior year.

As graduation day approaches, Jenna said she is feeling "way better now that I have medication that's working. Going through so much treatment, l learned how to deal with things that are thrown at me instead of just shutting down." 

Even in elementary and middle schools, social workers report seeing more incidences of students experiencing mental and emotional health issues. To address the mental and emotional health challenges, D97 officials recently announced plans to hire one student support specialist, four new social workers, one school psychologist, three interventionists and four special education teachers. 

Since setting up her private practice in Oak Park four years ago, therapist Judith Hanna, who treats adults, teens and pre-teens, said she has seen an increase in the number of young people experiencing anxiety. Like other professionals, she believes social media, too much screen time and academic competition can bring on anxiety and stress. 

Hanna points to another cause "that might not be so popular," she said. That's nutrition. She thinks consuming processed foods and environmental toxins can affect mental health and researchers are finding more evidence to back that up. For a lot of potential clients, she said, often her first suggestions is that they see a primary care physician to rule out allergies and other conditions. 

Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorder is more prevalent among females than males.

By far, the Baigs' experience is not uncommon. In multiple interviews, Oak Park and River Forest parents shared a range of stories about how they and their children are coping with mental health issues.

Citing statistics from the CDC, Kimberly Knake, executive director NAMI Metro Suburban, said 20 percent of youth 13-18 will have a mental health condition but only half will be diagnosed or seek treatment within five to six years. "Only 50 percent will get a formal diagnosis."

Jenna, who was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, panic disorder, general anxiety and mood disorder and ADHD, went public with her struggles, writing her story and posting it on Facebook.  

For others, mainly because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, they see their situations as a private matter. Several parents interviewed for this story didn't want their names or their children's revealed.

But like the Baigs, Danielle Désiré wants more people to understand what today's young people are experiencing. Her daughter, who graduated from OPRF last year, "dealt with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, bullying — the whole gamut," she said.

Now four years on the road to recovery with her daughter, Désiré said sharing their story "has become my passion" [because] teenage mental health and behavioral health has become one thing we need to bring more light to." Initially, she asked herself, "Where did I go wrong? How did I miss the signs?"

More mental and public health professionals are focusing on ways to address adolescent anxiety and other disorders. NAMI's "Ending the Silence" is an in-school presentation designed to teach middle and high school students about the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to recognize the early warning signs including facts and statistics and how to get help for themselves or a friend.

In communities like Oak Park and River Forest, with a sizable population of well-educated and well-off residents, some experts see the relentless stresses of adolescence — academics, sports, social — as contributing to mental health problems.

Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who studies distress and resilience, said research shows more emotional distress among privileged youth. "These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic," she told The New York Times.

Stephanie, an Oak Park mom who didn't want her last name used, has a son whose anxiety presents with school refusal. When he can't get his homework done, his "nerves start racking up because he didn't do what he was supposed to do, then he gets horrible anxiety thinking, 'I'm going to get in trouble,'" and he refuses to go to school, she said.

His stress is stressful for her. He's had sensory issues since he was a little boy. Stephanie said, "He would say, 'Mom, I can't stop my head. I need to tell you this.' He had to get these things off loaded before he could sleep. There was never any end to it."

Her son is 17 now. "I worry all the time," she said. "And I keep looking for different ways to help him."

Jenna, the graduating senior, believes whether you're a young person with anxiety or the parent of a child with the condition, it's important to tell someone. "You have to make people know that you need help."

SIDEBAR: Fred offers support for parents

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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