What are some warning signs of a mental health crisis in kids and what should I do if I see these signs?
In the last few years, I have responded to mental health crises in children as young as 5 years old. I recently encountered a young student who was struggling with suicidal thoughts. In a letter, the student wrote a chillingly specific suicide plan. Then, at the bottom of the page, they jotted down their hopes and dreams for the future. This is what mental health crises look like in children and adolescents: a heartbreaking and incongruous mix of hopelessness and longing.
How as a parent can you reach your child before they reach their breaking point? How do you recognize that they’re in pain — and help them tap into their hopes and dreams?
First, it helps to identify the signs of mental health crises. Generally speaking, these include:
- mood swings/refusal to go to school
- difficulty concentrating
- sudden behavior changes
- substance use
- physical symptoms (particularly headaches and stomach aches)
These warning signs can look different in everyone, but there are two categories of behaviors that we often see:
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Withdrawal — These are the kids who don’t feel like they can trust the world. They are more prone to self-harm, internalize everything and have a hard time socializing. They are typically not involved in sports or extracurricular activities. Even with loving parents at home, the child feels like they’re alone against the world.
Acting Out — These are the kids who have learned to use “misbehavior” as their coping tool against anxiety or sadness. They may fight or argue with adults or peers frequently. They are more prone to substance use, breaking rules and getting into trouble.
No matter what your child is facing or how they are manifesting their mental health issues, there are resources in your school, city and throughout the county that can help.
In the case of the student who wrote the note, the school reached out to Be Well OC. Our Mobile Crisis Response Team met the child, their counselor and their parents at the school, where the student and their parents agreed to allow us to help them. We were able to bring the student to a Crisis Stabilization Unit, where they received immediate help and access to ongoing resources.
Other resources throughout the county include:
- The non-emergency police number for your city. The number is different in each city, and resources vary between cities, but calling can help connect you to a crisis intervention specialist.
- Your child’s school, particularly counselors, can partner with you to identify signs of crisis in your child.
- Community psychologists and your pediatrician can all offer help, guidance and counseling.
- Be Well is open to the entire county (949-749-2500). It is a place where parents and kids alike can call and ask, “Is there anyone who can help me?”
As someone who has worked with child and adolescent mental health, it is gratifying to know that Orange County has so many resources to help our at-risk kids and their parents through a crisis.
Like the student who wrote the note at school, the message our kids send us can be heartbreaking and shocking. But, with your guidance as parents and the resources of Be Well and other community partners, we can hear their call and meet them with the response they need, together.
Alyssa Guerrero, M.S, LMFT, is the Newport Beach Mobile Response manager with Be Well OC. As a crisis intervention specialist, she provides services to clients experiencing mental health crises while regularly conducting mental health assessments and making astute transport decisions.