Generation Z and Mental Illness: we need all hands on deck”
April 22, 2019
“Kids are changing. Mental health is worse,” said Mental Health Coordinator Amy Naleid. According to Behavior Specialist Rebecca Boggs, this is due to a correlation between an increase in technology usage and overall mental health and behavior.
“Technology is impacting relationship development. Healthy relationships are a primary reinforcer, but if they are not developed, then the individual will have an inability to learn behaviors that will increase their overall quality of life,” said Boggs.
Naleid said her role is to make sure student needs are met and help kids be well enough to be at school.
“I have pulled back out of the high school more to help at the elementary schools because kids are having a much harder time regulating than they used to,” said Naleid.
Boggs said she has observed students engaging in challenging behaviors—any behavior that interferes with an individual’s learning, usually to avoid work and obtain attention.
“We are seeing a lot more kids with more intense behavior—such as throwing chairs, hitting peers, and not sitting still. It’s really surprising where they’ll take it,” said Naleid.
According to Naleid, there is an increase in more intense behavior across the entire district. “That’s where I see a bigger need and I think that’s the iGen problem: making behavioral choices,” said Naleid. “I would like to fortify a social and emotional curriculum to start before kindergarten to carry throughout K-12.”
According to Naleid, early education is changing: kindergarten is starting to look like first grade, first grade is beginning to look like second grade, and so on. “Kids are getting way less time to free play and problem solve with friends. We underestimate how crucial these skills are when coming to self-regulation,” said Naleid. “For example, if another kid takes a four-year-old’s block, and he’s mad, he has to figure it out. If you don’t get a chance to do this, it’s harder to cope with scary things in middle school and high school.”
According to Boggs, behavior is learned, so when an individual continues to engage in challenging behaviors, that means they need to be taught alternative behaviors.
“We need more curriculum to help kids regulate internally rather than sitting in a desk,” said Naleid. “Building social and emotional regulation skills in early childhood can prevent mental illness development.”
The relationship when a parent is raising a child is another major aspect of this debate, according to Naleid. “In the media, we talk a lot about what smartphones are doing to the kids using them, but I think there’s a lot to say about what it does to kids growing up with parents using them,” said Naleid. “When a parent tunes out with technology, it creates a whole new set of habits.”
According to Methodist Hospital M.D. in Behavioral Health Barbara Roth, more teens are coming to the hospital with suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide. “This is because more people are talking about suicide in the news and on social media. It seems like teens are feeling more overwhelmed in general, and even self harming behaviors are becoming more common,” said Roth.
According to Methodist Hospital M.D. in Behavioral Health Ben Christenson, kids are most commonly admitted for depression, suicidal thinking, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders.
“There aren’t enough inpatient psychiatry beds to meet demand,” said Christenson. “I think that we might be seeing an increase in numbers of people reaching out for mental health treatment because of increased awareness and some decrease in the stigma of mental illness although the latter remains a pretty big problem.”
According to Naleid, kids don’t learn language the same when they’re learning from a screen in comparison with human connection. “Teachers are not as exciting as screens. Kids—if done with something—are able to click it off, but that doesn’t work in a classroom; they have to wait and tolerate,” said Naleid. “We’re not teaching the skill of how to operate when you’re uncomfortable anymore.”
By the time kids are 15, they’re desensitized to the effects of screens, said Naleid.
“Behavior is a sign that mental health is suffering. If a kid is not behaving right, it’s not that they’re a jerk, it’s that they’re not ok,” said Naleid.
According to Naleid, everyone is on the spectrum of mental health. “At some point, we’re all healthy and adjusted, at some point we’re all coping with adversity, and at some point many of us are struggling. A smaller number of people become mentally ill—chemical or environmental,” said Naleid.
According to Naleid, mental illnesses are named based on a chemical imbalance—such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. “There are kids in the district going to day treatment for anxiety and depression—you could call it mental illness, but in the colloquial language of our culture, that is more to trouble adjusting to the environment you’re in than mental illness,” said Naleid.
According to Roth, there has been an increase in number of teens with anxiety and depression who are seeking help.
“Some kids won’t come to school because it’s just too stressful; depression is usually a follow-up to unmanaged anxiety,” said Naleid. “Sometimes they become intertwined, but when you’re too anxious to handle upcoming tasks, it’s easier to close up and protect yourself.”
According to Roth, open communication in families about symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress is important to reduce stigma and reduce teen suicide. “Teens can be impulsive because the brain is still developing,” said Roth. According to Naleid, adolescents are building their prefrontal cortex—what slams the brakes on bad decisions.
“The greatest weakness of young people is ignorance of health. It’s hard to apply a mature perspective to your health when you are not yet a mature adult,” said Christenson.
Naleid describes chemical and mental health as intertwined but independent—like the chicken and the egg predicament.
“If you are bombarding your development with an addictive chemical, you’re strengthening the addictive pathway. This becomes more concrete. You’re breaking the building blocks,” said Naleid.
According to Christenson, the biggest change he has seen in his years of practice is the nature of drug use: “Drugs are a moving target in terms of what is available and some of the synthetic drugs people use now are quite frightening,” said Christenson.
According to Roth, statistically, the best treatment outcomes are with the combination of medication and therapy; “any type of therapy can help: including family, cognitive behavioral therapy—which are two common types of therapy,” said Roth.
Boggs said everyone’s focus should be on all relationships including: teacher-student, parent-child, siblings, peers, community members, etc. “It is difficult for me to predict the future of mental health. I do think that we need to focus on developing healthy relationships with others as a way to promote healthy mental health and behaviors,” said Boggs.
According to Naleid, Kate Roselle—a family program professional from Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation —meets with students and parents to talk about progression of chemical use at Wayzata High School every Wednesday and Friday.
“Mental wellness is everybody’s job,” said Naleid. “We need all hands on deck; anyone can prevent suicides or can help a kid feel like they belong.”