SWAMPSCOTT — You can’t shove mental health under the carpet, Kristin Bagley-Jones said to a handful of parents Thursday night.
“It’s real and it exists,” she added.
Bagley-Jones is the director of the Child Wellness Initiative at Franciscan Children’s, a non-profit Catholic hospital in Brighton. She, along with Carol Nash, the hospital’s director of mental health research, gave a lecture about youth mental health awareness and stigma at St. John the Evangelist Church in Swampscott.
The lecture was part of the Kids Healthy Minds Initiative, which was formed in partnership with Franciscan Children’s and the Archdiocese of Boston. The goal of the program is to educate communities about the youth mental health crisis, teach people about the early warning signs of mental illness in kids and decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness and its treatments.
“Half of all mental illness is present by age 14, but it often goes undiagnosed,” said Nash, who is also the director of the Kids Healthy Minds Initiative. “Increased awareness throughout the community can aid in the early detection of symptoms and help reduce the associated stigma.”
Removing barriers to detection and treatment of mental health conditions is a critical first step, Nash said. The earlier the illness is identified and treated, the greater the likelihood of a better outcome, she added.
Bagley-Jones used a PowerPoint presentation to provide definitions, symptoms and risk factors for mental illnesses, such as depression and trauma. She also provided examples of how kids can develop trauma, citing situations like domestic violence and child abuse and neglect.
Symptoms, usually more than one at a time, for trauma include hypervigilance, inattention or difficulty concentrating, being easily angered, high irritability, fearfulness, headaches, upset stomachs, and sleep disturbance.
“Kids don’t have the same verbal and developmental abilities to identify and explain their thoughts and feelings,” said Bagley-Jones. “And the symptoms are different for each child.”
Kellie Frairy, a Nahant resident and mother of two, asked the lecture hosts if they thought social media and “the idea of perfection” played a role in aggravating symptoms of mental illness.
“It seems like these things run in trends, like what’s fashionable,” fellow Nahant resident Diane Desmond said immediately after. “One day it’s anxiety and the next day it’s something else.”
“If a child has a bad day at school, then it’s not depression,” Bagley-Jones replied. “But, if they aren’t getting out of bed for days in a row, are isolating themselves, or finding ways to self-harm, then it’s more than just a trend. Social media definitely exacerbates that, especially with FOMO, which is fear of missing out. Kids will go on their social profiles and think every kid is doing that fun-looking activity except for them.”
But, technology and social media aren’t always bad, Bagley-Jones said, as long as they are used in moderation.
There are several consequences of unresolved mental illness, according to research completed by Nash. Fifty percent of teens with mental illness drop out of high school, 50 percent of people with a substance use disorder have an underlying mental illness, and 70 percent of youth in juvenile justice systems have an underlying mental illness.
“I want to tell legislatures to stop putting money into the opioid problem and start putting money into mental health prevention so kids don’t develop an opioid problem,” Nash said.
The lecture hosts also addressed suicide, stating suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-19. Young girls also have one of the highest rates of death by hanging in Massachusetts.
“The words ‘everybody is better off without me’ are the key words for parents to keep at the front of their minds,” said Bagley-Jones.
The presentation ended with the question “What can parents do?”
They can keep a healthy routine for their children, build coping skills, practice positive self-statements, teach mindfulness around screen time and social media, point out their child’s strengths, let them fail sometimes, and teach faith. First steps for families who have concerns over their child’s mental health include making an appointment with a pediatrician and come prepared with questions.
“We are going to identify it, address it and that is what is going to make the changes,” Bagley-Jones said.
If you or a person you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.