How to Help Reduce Youth Mental Health Concerns

Our mental health coverage in 2024 is made possible by the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health.

As part of our Mental Health Awareness Month coverage, we talked with Deborah Cavitt, the manager of advocacy and education at the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health (MACMH) to discuss what she does related to youth mental health and suicide prevention.

 

Deborah Cavitt

Q: What do you do in your role as Manager of Advocacy and Education at MACHMH?

I advocate for families that call our agency and help them find resources for their child and navigate the systems. I’ve trained hundreds of people as certified family peer specialists, so that the parents who have been through those systems — and have gained some confidence and knowledge — can be there to help others who need to have somebody to walk beside them. Empowering people is more important than doing something for somebody. Wherever they are in the state, we can help teach them that, they can ask questions and shop around to find the best fit for their child. 

I train teachers and other professionals about early warning signs and suicide prevention. I also do training on topics like bullying or anxiety. 

 

Q: There’s been a lot of discussion about how Covid and the lockdowns negatively affected children’s social development and mental health. Would you agree with this assessment?

For adolescents that went through that time period at a prime age of development, that was a really tough thing. For some kids, if their home is not the safest place, school can be a relief for them, so the pandemic and that isolation was really tough when they had to do everything online from home. The pandemic raised the percentage of students that are struggling with their mental health. 

 

Q: What are reasons behind why some school-aged youth have learning or behavioral problems? How do you help teachers help students?

Stanford University found that a very high percentage of students that are in special education or have learning disabilities have had significant trauma. It’s hard to concentrate on something else when you have some really scary things going on in your life.

I was a teacher for over 20 years. I remember doing standardized tests with young students, around second grade. We opened the standardized tests and a little girl just ripped hers to shreds, threw it across the room and started sobbing. There was trauma at her home the night before. When something like that happens, how do you focus on anything? She had all those big emotions.

I encourage teachers to be non-punitive and to help be a regulation partner to youth and children who are struggling. I ask teachers to look underneath the behavior at what’s going on in their life that’s causing them to have this hard time.

 

Q: What projects are you working on now to improve youth mental health? 

I’m bringing [to Minnesota] a program called Sources of Strength, which is a suicide prevention program. It started out in North Dakota in a high school on a reservation where they were noticing suicide rates going up. It’s a strength-based program that helps build resiliency and helps people see that it’s okay to ask for help and to break that code of silence. They train peers and adult helpers to be able to let all youth in a school district or system know that there are people out there that they can turn to. The program is about building networks across groups.

We also are trying to get people to notice solitary people who have no connections and make sure we create an inclusive atmosphere. It’s also about including kids who  might be considered “in trouble” or who are experimenting with things. By having those students interact with each other in a smaller group, they build connections, which can act as a safety net for youth.

It is about taking a team approach. Communities, schools, youth realize we can do this together so that youth can refer other youth to an adult who will listen. 

 

Q: What are some risk factors for youth. How can adults work with a child struggling with mental health?

LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide. The highest suicide rates of different ethnic or racial groups is the American Indian population. There is also a higher percentage in rural populations because of the isolation and built-in pride in not asking for help. Looking at which populations are at higher risk is important so proper support can be provided. 

The higher suicide rates in LGBTQ+ populations come when there is family rejection. Family acceptance is a huge protective factor against suicide. When I’m teaching, I emphasize that this is the same beloved child, who has had the courage to share something very personal.

The CDC found that the more adverse childhood experiences a person had, the more likely they were to have mental and physical health problems, and be more at risk for suicide. Economic instability and youth alcohol use can be a huge factor in depression and suicide; mood disorders and substance use are often present with teens who take their own life. I believe that alcohol use is self medication. So, pain is already there. Simply treating the substance use isn’t going to fix the mental health problems. The key is to make sure they have co-occurring treatment.

Another thing that’s important in suicide prevention is to eliminate mean. Keeping medications and weapons, like guns, locked and secured is important.

Talking about mental health can be a relief.  Letting a child know that you are there and will stick with them; that together you will find help and those feelings will ease. It is incredibly important for a child to know “we just need to get through each day together.”