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How and when to talk to your kids about mental health

Around ages 8-10, parents should start having conversations with their kids about depression and suicide. Sponsored by Seattle Children's.

SEATTLE — According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 children experience a mental disorder each year. However, only 20% of these children actually receive the specialized care they need.

Start these conversations early 

Talking to your child about depression and suicide may feel uncomfortable, intimidating, and even frightening, but increasing efforts in early intervention can save lives. These experts recommend thinking about having these conversations starting around ages 8-10.

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"Be direct and talk about it early. It's happening in our schools. Kids are talking about it on social media. And so the earlier you can start the conversation, it makes it more normal," says Erika Miller, Manager of Mental Health Consultations at Seattle Children's Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Clinic.

Talking to Teens 

Erika says it's common for parents to be afraid to talk openly about mental health because they believe they might be introducing concepts too complex and scary for their child to comprehend. She suggests starting simple by asking questions like, "Do you ever have worries about dying?" or "Are things in your life so hard that you don't know how to keep going?" This will open the door for more complex discussions when they get older.

Talking to teenagers about mental health is a little different. They are more familiar with the subject, so Erika suggests making them feel empowered by asking questions geared towards their own specific experiences. Some questions you might ask are:

  • What are the things that are worrying you?
  • What are some things that are stressful for you?
  • How can I support you?
  • Who are other adults in your life that you can go to?

Signs to look for in your child 

There are several signs you can look for in your child if they are depressed or having suicidal thoughts.

"You want to look for changes. They're not sleeping well, their eating patterns have changed, grades have changed. They're not interested maybe in the sports or the activities that they were once interested in. And being in tune and not chucking that up to just being a teenager."

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It's important to be direct and ask open-ended questions, and let them know there are resources that can help them get through tough times. And even if they aren't showing any obvious signs, you can still reassure that help is available if they ever are feeling depressed.

Use your Doctor as a resource 

If you have a solid relationship with your child's primary care doctor, they can give you options to help your child get the support they need. There are also county, state and national crisis lines that have resources available to help families. You might also look into your insurance panel and find a child-focused therapist.

Additionally, Seattle Children's has a  Zero Suicide Initiative that encourages early intervention when it comes to mental health.

"We have started to screen kids ages 10 and up who come to our emergency room and in inpatient units to be able to catch those kids when those thoughts are happening and get them and their families that support early."

Visit the Seattle Children's Pulse blog for more information on depression and mental health.

This segment is sponsored by Seattle Children's. Watch New Day Northwest 11:00 weekdays on KING-TV Ch.5 or streaming live on KING5.com. Connect with New Day via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.