The state of mental health in America is alarming, to say the least. Suicide is now one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and rates of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing. In Northeast Florida, we are not immune to these trends. In fact, our region has some of the highest rates of mental illness in the country.
Like most mental health professionals, I wish seeking treatment for depression or anxiety was viewed in the same manner as seeking care for chicken pox or a sprained ankle. Unfortunately, it is not. There is still a stigma surrounding mental health, and many people are afraid to seek help because they don't want to be labeled as "crazy" or "weak."
This needs to change. We need to start talking about mental health in a way that is open, honest, and inclusive — because mental illness is not just something that happens to other people. Like physical health, our mental health is a vital part of our overall health and well-being, and failing to address it can have serious consequences. This is particularly true for children, which means it should be a big concern for our community.
The Census Bureau estimates that the three most populous Northeast Florida counties have more than 340,000 residents under age 18. St. Johns County alone has more than 63,465 residents in this age group; more than 21 percent of the population. While there have never been enough resources for mental health treatment in our region, the need has skyrocketed since the pandemic. In addition to the everyday challenges of growing up, young people now showing symptoms such as depression and anxiety have had to deal with disruptions in schooling, separation from friends and family, and fear of illness and the unknown.
Many have encountered economic hardships or been displaced because of parental unemployment. Some have been abused. And social media not only presents unreal images of how kids should look, act and feel, but also provides 24/7 opportunities for bullying. No wonder there’s an increasing need for youth mental health services!
Fortunately, parents, caregivers, neighbors and friends can be part of the solution, beginning with communication. You can help by showing interest in the mental and emotional state of children in your orbit, or being available to talk when an opportunity occurs. If they are sad or anxious, let them know there’s nothing wrong about feeling that way and emphasize that owning those symptoms and seeking help if they continue is a normal, healthy thing to do.
Resources are available to help you learn more about how to identify and discuss symptoms of mental illness and help youngsters get the help they need. One of them, Talkable Communities (TC), provides free mental health trainings to residents of six Northeast Florida counties. A collaborative effort among five behavioral health providers, TC offers courses designed to aid young people at risk for mental illness, substance use and suicide – “Youth Mental Health First Aid” and “It's Time to Talk About It!” Another course trains participants to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis at any age, and then question, persuade and refer that person to get the appropriate help.
Whether you’re a parent, teacher, friend or concerned neighbor, remember that prevention is as important for mental illness as it is for cancer or heart disease. Learn more about TC at www.talkablecommunities.org. If you prepare now, you will be ready to help when the opportunity arises, and you can share your knowledge with others seeking to be part of the solution for our region’s young people.