young student worrying about her grades

Suicide Prevention Centre Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) received almost 50 per cent more calls for help from young people in 2015 than from the previous year — with the number of calls regarding mental health increasing by 56 per cent.

In 2014, SOS logged 1,767 calls from those aged between 10 and 19 years old, with 244 of these concerning a mental health problem. In 2015, such calls totalled 2,680, and 550 respectively. The year also saw 27 suicides in the same age group — the highest in 15 years. The statistics are worrying.

However, with early detection, teenagers with a mental disorder are able to recover fully. But how can parents and caregivers distinguish between mood and behavioural changes — characteristics of puberty — from the warning signs of a mental disorder?

“Signs of mental disorders tend to be more persistent, more severe and are triggered more easily than changes in mood and behaviours that occur during puberty,” says Brian Poh, Child Psychologist at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

Some of the more common mental problems inflicting them include depression and anxiety disorders. While there are no exact causes of mental disorders, scientific research has shown that a combination of biological, psychological and social factors contribute to the manifestations of mental disorders.

The Next Best Step

mother and daughter bonding at home

Whatever the cause for a change in behaviours, parents should talk to their teenage child to find out the possible triggers, says Mr Poh. “Parents may wish to find out if a traumatic event has happened to their child recently.”

Mr Poh stresses the need for parents to build a good relationship with their children by spending time with them regularly, and not just during a crisis. A close parent-child relationship enables parents to be more alert towards marked changes in their child.

“When you have a good rapport with your child, he or she will feel more at ease in sharing problems, and be more open to your suggested solutions or advice,” explains Mr Poh.

“When the need arises, you can tactfully propose that they seek professional support for their problems, as opposed to pointing out that they may be suffering from a mental disorder.”

Parents are advised to seek professional help when, besides drastic, unrelenting shift in behaviours and mood, their child’s academic, occupational or social functioning are affected.

The first person of contact should be the school counsellor, who typically has access to the Response, Early intervention and Assessment in Community Mental Health (REACH) team from IMH. REACH’s multi-disciplinary team comprises medical doctors, clinical psychologists, medical social workers, occupational therapists and nurses who provide help for students with emotional, social, and behavioural issues and disorders.

If the teenager’s symptoms are severe, with the risk of harm to self or others, or if they are suicidal, Mr Poh advises that parents should bring their child directly to IMH’s emergency department.

There are many potential consequences if a teenager’s mental disorder is left untreated. Such disorders have been linked to school failures, juvenile delinquency and detention, and adolescent suicides. Some emotional and behavioural disorders can also impede physical, psychological, social and intellectual development. The mental disorders can persist through adulthood.

Related: Anxiety Disorder Or Just Anxious?

Learn, Love And Live

young brother and sister having a fun day out in the park with the family

The family should do their best to show acceptance and affection regardless of the patient’s mental health condition. “They should learn about and understand the condition and diagnosis of the patient, so as to minimise misconceptions about what he or she is going through,” Mr Poh says, suggesting also that the family provides encouragement and ensures the patient adheres to the treatment plan.

“Always be ready to provide a listening ear and constant reassurance so that the patient will feel supported and hopeful when recovering.” To stay on the path of mental wellness, teenagers must take good care of their physical health by having a balanced diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep.

They should interact regularly with friends, and openly discuss their problems and feelings. Academic pressure and stress can be managed with effective time management, organisational and relaxation skills. “Balance work with play, as well as set realistic goals and expectations in school,” Mr Poh urges. “It is also healthy for teenagers to accept and value who they are, and know their own strengths and talents, rather than compare themselves to others.”

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