In a recent forum for parents of students at De La Salle Zobel school, Dr. Maria Teresa Gustilo Villasor, who specializes in child and adolescent psychology, family ministries and pastoral counseling, lectured on “Family Mental Health and Wellness.”
“The prevalence of mental illness among the youth is highest among ages 16-24, but in the Philippines it is earlier, at 12 years old,” Villasor said. Depression and anxiety are the prevalent disorders to up to a fifth of the population, but resistance to seek help is common among adolescents with high susceptibility.
Villasor said that mental health factors like one’s biochemistry, genetics, personality and environment are experienced as stress, anxiety or depression.
Stress is the body’s physical, mental and chemical reaction to perceived disruptions. Its triggers may be self-generated, relationships, life changes, work, money and other irritants. Stress is an unavoidable consequence of living. Its effects accumulate over time, resulting in the wear and tear of body and mind. The body reacts the same way whether the trigger is perceived as positive or negative.
Anxiety is the physiological-emotional response to perceived danger/threat. It is a reaction to stress, a feeling of apprehension with physical symptoms (palpitation, clammy hands, difficulty breathing). It is a warning from within: do we choose fight, flight or freeze? Triggers for adolescents include academic stress, social anxiety/peer pressure/bullying, body image, romantic problems, traumatic events, parental marital issues, heredity, family financial struggles, physical/emotional neglect, low self-esteem and feelings of unhappiness.
“Self-worth is what we should build, not self-esteem,” said Villasor. “Self-esteem is ‘I’m as good as what others say,’ while self-worth is ‘I believe I’m OK; even if they all get mad I know I will be fine.’ That comes from the child’s Important Others believing in them.”
Depression is anxiety with restlessness, excessive worrying and agitation. These overlaps of depression and anxiety are emotionally tied, making it last for over two weeks. It manifests as sadness, irritability, tiredness, loss of interest in normal activities, self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts and disturbances in eating or sleeping.
What to do
Villasor advised parents to Look, Listen, Learn and Link when confronted by mental health issues:
Look: Observe, watch for and be attentive to unusual behavior, irregular eating/sleeping, relationships, appearance, eye contact and speech.
Listen: Don’t ask “why”; instead, ask what, when, where, who and how to find out “why.” Asking “why” makes the person defensive. If your child says, “I’m afraid to go to school,” never ask why. “‘What happened?’ is better. ‘So how can we fix it? What can Mama do? What will you tell the teacher?’”
Avoid saying: “You have nothing to be upset about…,” “What is wrong with you?,” “What you are doing (smoking/drinking/cutting) is not good for you,” “You are looking for attention/making drama,” “Why are you doing this?,” “How can you do this to us? We love you!” (Don’t make it about you!)
As you listen, respect confidentiality and ask permission to share with your spouse or another person for help.
“But don’t open wounds you cannot close,” Villasor warned. Don’t ask about losses then leave them hanging, vulnerable. Don’t produce the solution; by talking it through, you are helping them figure out their problems. Repeat what they say (“So am I to understand this is what happened…”).
Don’t overtalk; only give data that answers the question. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Learn: Anyone can have mental health problems. Experts believe genetics play a role, having a parent or sibling with such issues increases the risk of developing the disorder. Women are more likely to be depressed than men. Life needs constant role adaptation as mental health concerns can be triggered by birth/loss of a child, economic reversals, moves in school/job/home/health, changes in marital roles and relational dissatisfaction.
“Ages 0-12 is your planting season for formation and foundation of a moral compass. This is when the parent is more important than academic achievement,” said Villasor. “At ages 0-7, the most important figure is Mom. After the emotional side is developed, at ages 7-12, the father’s presence is important. After 12 years old, they will look for other role models. Teens don’t care if you’re home, as peers/media become more important. But in their 20s, children return to those values you planted so you can see if the seeds took root.”
When to seek help
Link: When does one go for a consult? When the person hints at or talks openly about suicide/homicide, shows any sign of a medical emergency, the possibility of abuse or criminal activity, or when either of you are out of your depth.
The physical and emotional turmoil brought on by mental health issues can derail careers, hobbies and relationships. A diagnosis of anxiety or depression can benefit from medical, psychological, social and spiritual interventions. Remember not to self-medicate, avoid alcohol (depressant), have regular physical activity (chemical release), sleep regularly, have a healthy diet and don’t ask when it will end.
Know the symptoms, encourage the person to seek help, be a friend and listen, keep in touch to see how they are doing, don’t make light of their situation, affirm the person’s strengths, take comments on suicide seriously, pray for the person and link with appropriate parties.
If your child refuses to see a specialist, say, “You need to see a doctor because our family needs this.”
The teen years are the age of turmoil; they don’t yet have the maturity to understand so they will attempt a power play. But stick to the CPR of childhood: Consistency, Predictability and Routine. Spouses have to agree and be one in the consequence of their teen’s actions. It will be for their own good.
Said Villasor, “The human brain is a work in progress. Young people are dealing with social, emotional and cognitive changes that are not yet developed. Parents can help by listening, staying calm and being good role models.”—CONTRIBUTED INQ