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As parents, we enjoy sitting on the sideline, cheering our young athletes on as they run up and down the field, hurdle over obstacles, and barrel around the track. We understand that our kids will fall down, scrape their knees, and sprain an ankle or two; it’s all part of the game. We’re prepared to help them overcome these setbacks and get back onto the field, but what if the obstacle isn’t a physical one?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 adolescents are suffering with a diagnosable mental health disorder, 70% of which go untreated.  Are we prepared to identify and help our children if they’re suffering from a mental health disorder, like depression?

Although participating in sports has shown to be a protective factor against mental illness, it does not grant anyone immunity. As a parent, you play an important part in looking for signs that might indicate your child might benefit from a trip to the counselor. Below are some important symptoms to be on the lookout for:

  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits: Participation in sports can influence sleeping and eating habits, especially in season. Running up and down the field may ware out your teen, rev up their appetite, or motivate them to make healthier eating choices. It’s time to express concern when there’s a noticeable, persistent difference that negatively affects your child’s wellbeing (ie., they are unable to fall asleep or stay asleep at night, they are overeating or not eating enough, or are using food to cope with difficult feelings).
  • Problems concentrating, focusing, or remembering: It’s not unusual for children to have moments where they have difficulty focusing or concentrating. However, it’s time to express concern when your child is displaying these symptoms in various aspects of their daily lives (in the classroom, at home, with friends, etc.).  Talk with your child’s teacher, are they having trouble remembering things they once knew? Talk to their coach–do they seem more distracted at practice than usual?
  • Frequent complaints of fatigue, illness, or injury: Kids get sick pretty frequently, but it’s important to keep in mind that the cause may not always be physical. Depression can present itself with physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and irregular sleeping or eating patterns. These ailments can contribute to increased chances for physical injuries. It’s time to express concern when these physical ailments become more commonplace. If your child is experiencing these symptoms on a regular basis, it may be time to speak to your doctor.
  • Increased irritability: Depression, especially in boys, has been associated with high levels of aggression and frustration. It’s time to express concern when lashing out at practices or overreacting to minor incidents, such as a disagreement over a call, become frequent. This may be a sign your child may be feeling depressed or anxious. It’s important to talk with your child about what they may be feeling.
  • Talking about death, dying, or going away: If your child starts giving away prized possessions like their Letterman jacket, or trophies, or is expressing suicidal thoughts in any way, seek immediate help by contacting emergency services or calling the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1.800.273.TALK (8255). Every communication about suicidal intent should be taken seriously.

Some of these signs may be difficult to discern from typical moodiness, but consider three areas when you’re assessing your child’s mood: severity, duration, and different areas of life. The more severe those signs are, and the longer they last, could indicate if your child is suffering from a mental health disorder. Notice if these changes are happening in different areas of their life; at school, with friends, on the field, and at home to help distinguish what could be a mental health concern.

Now that you know some of the signs to look for, what’s the next step if you’re concerned about your child? Below are three steps you can take summarized by an easy to remember acronym, ACT:

  • Acknowledge that you’re concerned about their wellbeing. Initiate a conversation using a non-confrontational demeanor and ask open ended questions about how they’re feeling.
  • Care: Demonstrate active listening. Be sure not to minimize or dismiss their feelings.
  • Treatment: If you’re concerned that your child may need further assessment and care, consult with your child’s primary care physician or reach out to your child’s school for more resources and referral information.

It takes a team effort to ensure the safety and wellbeing of your child. Communicate openly with your child about their health, but also engage key players like your child’s coach, favorite teacher, or bus driver in the conversation. Initiating conversations will help your prevention efforts by bringing awareness to this topic and cultivating an environment where both children and adults feel comfortable discussing their concerns.

This post was submitted by Will to Live, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing teen suicide by improving the lives and the ‘Will to Live’ of teenagers everywhere through education about mental health and encouraging them to recognize the love and hope that exists in each other.