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SALT LAKE CITY — Local experts are teaching parents the skills they need to help children who exhibit mental health issues.
"If your child ... has a mental health problem, it doesn't mean you're a failure as a parent," Amanda Miller, director of intermediate services at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said during the facility's second "community conversation" held as part of Mental Health Awareness Month in May.
She said it is important for parents to recognize that mental health issues are an illness, and while environmental stressors can bring them out, biology plays a huge role.
The virtual panel discussion was aimed to educate parents about the things to watch for to know if children are encountering mental health issues, encouraging them to talk to their kids, limit electronic devices and to take mental health concerns seriously. It is important to also seek help if and when it is needed.
Children also experience mental health issues differently that adults, said Radha Moldover, who manages Teenscope South, a day treatment center for youth mental health.
She said that for children, depression doesn't necessarily mean they are sad more often — it can instead manifest as being irritable, annoyed or more sensitive. Moldover said depression in children can be mistaken for teenage moodiness. She also noted that children with attention deficit disorders are at a higher risk for developing depression.
The treatment center located at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, formerly known as University Neuropsychiatric Institute, provides parents with information about validation, including how to talk and listen to their children, while teaching children about regulating emotions and mindfulness skills.
She said there are a lot of electronic resources available for parents and their families, including apps, YouTube channels and websites. Moldover suggested using these resources if there is a wait and a child cannot see a therapist immediately. Other panelists suggested community groups and school counselors.
Lindsay Wilson-Barlow, who is a child psychiatrist at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said that while there are a lot of resources available to help teenagers, just being available as a parent is a good place to start.
"Being there, you know, having your child see you as a resource and somebody who cares and somebody who can be present is, I think, the very first step," Wilson-Barlow said.
She said parents don't necessarily need to have intense conversations with their children about mental issues, but they should play games together or eat together. She also stressed that children need to have a sense of connection and community, and have a balance between social media and interacting with friends and others.
Wilson-Barlow suggested setting limits for internet and phone time.
"Generally speaking, what we want to do is create balance," she said.
Parents can set rules for electronic devices, and if situations change, they can change the rules and provide explanations for those changes, according to Kristin Francis, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who led the panel discussion on Thursday.
Francis said health officials are seeing an "unprecedented need" for mental health services, and it's possible the COVID-19 pandemic kept people from seeking mental health care while also possibly causing additional stresses.
"Something from the pandemic I've definitely seen is that more people recognize it's OK to not be OK, and they're seeking help," she said.
If there is a wait to see a provider, it is likely because the provider is trying to provide quality care to patients whom they have already committed to seeing regularly.
The first community conversation — held last week — was focused on the SafeUT App, which allows youth and certain adults to text a mental health professional at any time. Members of Thursday's panel suggested that parents should make sure the app is downloaded on their child's phone before an issue comes up.
"Even if you're not at that place, it's a good thing to just introduce to your child," Wilson-Barlow said.
The final community conversation, which will be available to the public, will include a panel of youth who are sharing how they manage their own mental health issues. The online presentation, "Healing out loud: Unmasking the mental health stigma," will be held at 6 p.m. on May 19. More information can be found at healthcare.utah.edu/hmhi.