Families are encouraged to focus on child and adolescent mental health

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Clinicians from Allegheny Health Network’s (AHN) Pediatric and Psychiatric and Behavioral Health Institutes are teaming up to encourage families across the region to focus on child and adolescent mental health during this year’s back-to-school season.

“It’s important that parents and caregivers encourage children and adolescents to maintain open lines of communication to discuss any worries or fears they may have related to going back to school,” said Anthony Mannarino, PhD, child and adolescent psychologist and chair of the AHN Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Institute. 

“Creating a safe and supportive environment at home can greatly contribute to your child’s positive mental health as they navigate the challenges of a new school year.” 

As classrooms prepare to open their doors for another year, Dr. Mannarino joined the chair of AHN’s Pediatric Institute, Joseph Aracri, DO, to offer back-to-school guidance for parents and caregivers: 

•Establish a consistent, healthy sleep schedule: If children and teens are tired, they are likely to feel more stress, anxiety and become easily distracted. If they have found themselves keeping later hours during summer break, doctors recommend gradually getting back to an earlier bedtime at least a week before school begins. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends 9-12 hours of sleep for children ages 6 to 12 and 8-10 hours for teenagers daily.

•Encourage involvement in extracurricular sports and activities: Stay in tune with your children’s interests and encourage them to pursue aligned activities that also promote socialization with their peers. Regarding organized sports, in particular, health benefits include improved mental and cardiovascular health as well as decreased risk of obesity and feelings of isolation.

•Limit screen time and time spent on social media channels: Encourage moderation in screen usage to prevent potential isolation and negative effects on mental health. Implement “media curfews” and “phone-free zones” (at mealtimes, for example) to create realistic parameters around screen time, and ensure adults within the household also abide by these limitations.

For all forms of screen use, encourage transparency and open communication. “Family-engaged teens”— those who communicate with their parents about technology use — have been known to report more positive mental health in relation to technology use, compared to at-risk peers who reported higher rates of negative health outcomes like isolation and depression. 

•Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it can make it easier: For children who may be experiencing heightened anxiety this month, it can be helpful to practice their routine to familiarize them with what to expect when school starts. Activities like driving by the school, bus stop, or sports field may help to better acclimate them to what their days will soon begin to look like. It may also spark further conversation about what is triggering their anxiety. 

“The key to promoting positive mental health within the household is a commitment to open, frequent and engaging communication,” said Dr. Aracri. “Whether it’s related to screen time, socializing within the classroom or joining a new extracurricular activity, it’s critical that adults foster an environment that encourages their children to share their anxieties, feelings and challenges. As a community — educators, parents and care providers — we must do our part to continue to break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and help our children recognize that they don’t have to put up a good front.”

To help combat those stigmas and equip young children with the techniques needed to identify their feelings and create their emotional vocabularies, AHN launched a new children’s YouTube series focused on behavioral health called Cai and Kate. The series features Cai, a chameleon puppet whose color changes depending on his emotions and feelings, and Kate, Cai’s human friend who provides commentary on the various emotions portrayed in the show. Since its launch in May, the free web series has released three episodes and received more than 30,000 views. 

Depression, anxiety and behavioral disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents, according to the World Health Organization, and research has demonstrated the rates of depression and anxiety among teens have significantly increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To make an appointment with the AHN Pediatric Institute, please call the office most convenient for you; a full listing can be accessed here. If parents and/or caregivers need to connect their child or adolescent with mental and behavioral health services, they can call 412-330-4429. 

Allegheny Health Network (AHN.org) is an integrated healthcare delivery system serving the greater Western Pennsylvania region.  The Network is composed of 14 hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, Health + Wellness Pavilions, multiple employed physician organizations, home and community based health services, a research institute, and a group purchasing organization. The Network provides patients with access to a complete spectrum of advanced medical services, including nationally recognized programs for primary and emergency care, trauma care, cardiovascular disease, organ transplantation, cancer care, orthopedic surgery, neurology and neurosurgery, women’s health, diabetes, autoimmune disease and more.  AHN employs approximately 22,000 people, has more than 2,600 physicians on its medical staff and serves as a clinical campus for Drexel University College of Medicine and the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Courtesy of AHN Psychiatric and Behavioral Health Institute