On Monday, Oct. 3, about 200 guests gathered in the Kevin Kline Theatre for Starting the Conversation: Raising Emotionally and Mentally Healthy Kids, a presentation by the Independence Center of St. Louis. Father Gregory welcomed parents, faculty, staff and monks to the program, and led the assembly in prayer before introducing Kate Tansey, a licensed clinical social worker.
Kate gave a brief overview of the Independence Center and spoke about how mental health and mental illness are not on opposite ends of a scale, but are related. She said that 1 in 5 children ages 13 to 18 live with a mental health condition, and applying that statistic to St. Louis County demographics means that about 50,000 kids live with a mental health condition in the county. She showed a brief film from the University of Minnesota that demonstrates how mental health is a continuum, and let the audience know that several mental health service providers had set up tables in the student commons, including Catholic Family Services, Behavioral Health Response, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the Independence Center. Guests were given notecards to submit questions, a bag for collecting materials from the providers, and a brief survey to complete at the end of the presentation.
Then, Kate introduced a panel of speakers who took the stage in comfortable chairs facing the audience: Dr. Daniel Reising, a child psychiatrist and mental health specialist at Clayton Behavioral; Sue Schulz, a mother of three, Susan Powderly, mother of four including Matthew ’08; and Julie Tang, mother of four, including Brian Eggert ’08. The mothers all shared their stories of helping their children who struggled with mental illness, including their personal histories, successes, and challenges. They agreed that communication with your children is key, and Sue said she found that when she talked with her daughter, not to her, that helped tremendously. It’s easy today for kids to hide behind their technology, but face-to-face conversations, phone calls, and video calls are essential. Another piece of advice is to trust your gut as a parent. Mental illness might not always be as obvious as we think it should be, and can manifest itself in unexpected ways, like insomnia. Keep asking questions, of your child, your pediatrician, and your child’s teachers. Communication with the faculty at your child’s school is essential, especially when your kids are younger. Start the conversation early with your children, so that as they grow up they feel comfortable talking to you. Watch your language to ensure you’re not disparaging those who struggle with mental illness in front of your children.
The panel agreed that mental illness needs to be discussed candidly and openly. Cancer used to be talked about in whispers, and now it’s a common conversation topic and there are many easy ways to find resources and admit when help is needed. Mental illness still has a bit of a stigma attached, and we can all work harder to bring it out into the light so that people feel comfortable seeking help. Along these lines, the panel stressed that it’s important to ask someone who you suspect may be contemplating suicide if they are considering harming themselves. A simple, “Should I be concerned about your safety?” can open the door to a frank conversation that leads to help. Dr. Reising said that people are afraid of asking because they fear they will plant the idea. “You’re not opening the door,” he said. “Talking about it doesn’t introduce the idea.” Open conversations about mental illness can also help banish the stigma that is attached to the idea of using medicine to treat chemical imbalances. While a healthy lifestyle with proper diet, appropriate exercise, and sleep can help, many times those battling mental illness must use prescribed medicine to manage their illness. One of the mothers pointed out that proper expectations are essential: medication helps manage the illness, but doesn’t solve everything.
The panel encouraged the audience to learn about mental illness, including checking your family history. Talk with your children about mental health when they are in a good place, not when they are in the middle of a crisis. Keep asking questions, even if they shut down the conversation. Keep opening up opportunities for dialogue. Check out mental health first aid courses available through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which offers both training and resources. Start the fire of conversation about mental health, so we’re all prepared and can help our children.
After the panel discussion, the audience asked a variety of questions and shared personal experiences. Guests were then free to ask one-on-one personal questions of the panelists, visit the resource tables in the commons, and share their thoughts with each other.
Thank you to the Independence Center and our panelists for their time Monday night. The presentation provided candid talk and vital information, and did start the conversation for many guests.