The Examiner

P’ville Program Details How to Help Teens With Mental Health Issues

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Colleen Griffin Wagner, a mental health counselor, led a presentation last week for more than 40 men about how to recognize the warning signs of mental illness and what to do.

The all-male audience listened closely to Colleen Griffin Wagner on Tuesday evening. Some 45 men who gathered in the Pleasantville High School cafeteria for Dads Night for Youth Mental Health were eager to know how to connect with today’s youth suffering from a variety of mental health illnesses.

“We’ve always struggled with getting dads out,” said Brian Halloran, who founded the Break the Hold (BTH) Foundation last year after his 19-year-old son committed suicide. “As you learn more about it [mental health issues] you realize it touches everybody. We get calls from parents saying ‘My son’s friend said this and what should we do?’”

Break the Hold and PvilleCares, a free biweekly drop-in family support group that aims to help families dealing with youth and young adult substance abuse, addiction and mental illness, co-sponsored the event.

Wagner’s presentation focused on how to recognize and what to do when confronting someone with mental health problems. She said fathers, uncles, grandfathers, brothers, coaches and friends represent a critical group who could intervene and support a youngster going through mental health challenges. The outreach was to appeal to fathers or male relatives and teachers who are often left out of the loop.

Several hands went up when Wagner asked how many work with children.

“You’re the people that are right there to help,” she said. “You can be the person a kid comes to. You can be a changemaker.”

Wagner, a former village trustee, is a professional mental health counselor and a certified instructor for the National Council for Behavioral Health. She related a story of a 10-year-old boy from Ireland visiting his dad in Pleasantville years ago during the summer. The boy showed clear signs of desperation but nobody understood what those signs meant. Wagner learned soon after he returned to Ireland that he committed suicide.

Wagner said classes on recognizing warning signs are as essential as CPR training.

“We cannot leave all the kids that are having issues to social workers or mental health help counselors; there are not enough to go around,” she said “What I’ve learned over the years is the more we know, the more comfortable we are in intervening.”

Wagner noted the following facts:

  • One in four children before the age of 18 will have mental health issues, most of which develop during adolescence;
  • One in five will experience a mental health issue or crisis;
  • 1 million youths under 18 have had a psychiatric disorder, more than those with cancer, AIDS and diabetes combined; and
  • 50 percent of mental health issues are established by the age of 14 and 75 percent by age 24.

“What kids don’t do is they don’t tell us when another kid is in trouble,” Wagner said. “That’s the stigma we need to wipe away. When I talk to kids in schools or in group meetings, I tell them ‘Would you rather have a mad friend or a dead friend?’”

There are techniques for adults to practice in order to reach friends of teens and adolescents displaying abnormal behavior. During the 90-minute presentation, Wagner talked about the signs of impending suicide and how to deal with a potential suicidal youngster. She gave brief explanations of various illnesses, such as Attention Deficit Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome and self-harming.

Wagner said normal indicators of depression are sadness, being subdued or quiet or having no energy. But with youngsters suffering from mental illness it’s anger and impulsiveness.

“We think they are acting out, but they’re not,” she said.

Seeking help for those who are troubled is essential. If a teen who typically visits your house seems off, engage them or speak to a parent, but don’t let it slip by, Wagner said. If an adult sees a youngster acting differently, she urged the audience to engage with them verbally.

“You can start a conversation with ‘I’ve noticed that…’ or ‘Want to walk with me right now?’ You do not want to focus on their changing behavior,” Wagner said. “You don’t want to ‘fix’ them. Also, giving praise when deserved goes a long way.”

A technique called reflective listening – repeating back what is said – can go a long way and shows that you’re a good listener, she said. Put away your cell phone, be accepting and reserve judgment.

Interspersed with the talk, three segments of “Suicide: The Ripple Effect” were shown, a documentary by Kevin Hines, who is a friend of Wagner’s. Hines attempted suicide at 19 by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. The film chronicles the impact of his attempt on others and his work as a mental health advocate since then.

Wagner was emphatic about connecting a troubled person with the right resources and then following up. Westchester Medical Center is the closest hospital with a psychiatric unit and everyone should learn the hospitals that have detox centers.

There’s also the Text Crisis Line: 741741. Last year the line received more than 100 million texts.

Halloran said knowing how to react is the first step in opening a conversation and then informing the right people.

“We are the answers to the problems with the next generation,” he said.

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