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How To Help Children And Adolescents Gain Coping Skills As Soon As They're Struggling With Depression

Photo: Fernando
Photo: Fernando

Children and teenagers have gone months without regularly seeing friends, extended family and educators during the COVID-19 pandemic. If a young person is struggling with difficult emotions and stress, Dr. Howard Pratt has advice about how to step in and support them. He’s a child-adolescent psychiatrist at Community Health of South Florida. WLRN’s Veronica Zaragovia spoke with him this month, which is National Suicide Prevention month.

ZARAGOVIA: If someone close to us is suffering from severe depression, who has thoughts about suicide, what’s the most effective thing we can do? PRATT: People tend to be forthcoming if they are thinking that way, and probably the most difficult thing to do is listen to them and they will tell you things that will probably make you very uncomfortable. They will tell you reasons that they want to die. They will tell you reasons why they haven't committed suicide, but the thing about it is you have to let them know that that does bother you, that you care about them, that you love them. But, the thing is, you can't do that on your own. Most of us are not equipped to deal with a suicidal family member or a loved one, so I cannot stress enough getting the help. ZARAGOVIA: What are signs to look out for in friends, family, students - people in our lives? PRATT: One of the ways I always tell parents is they need to look for changes in their child. That could be changes in their friends, if they're isolating themselves, if they're just not taking pleasure in the things that they used to really enjoy. Those are the things that you want to look at and talk to your kids. You can't be passive in this because when it comes to their mental health, it's so much easier to help people when they're younger and then they get coping skills and learn how to tackle things when they're an adult, than just letting things go and hoping for the best. So it starts with a conversation because a lot of times, you know, as adults, we kind of try to shield kids from everything or we do the extreme where we share too much. There has to be a balance. ZARAGOVIA: Therapy and other mental health services can be very expensive. What kind of affordable mental health services are available? PRATT: I work in what is known as a community health center. I have a good portion of my patients that do not have insurance or their means are very limited. If you seek out your community health centers, you have a lot of dedicated people willing to help. In Community Health of South Florida, we are building our children’s crisis center. The children that are in this community get sent far away, some as far as Broward and families may not be able to come and see their children while they’re getting treatment. We're finally going to be able to treat kids that are here. I don't have to look at a parent and say, I don't know where your kid is going to be. ZARAGOVIA: When we’re so much more separated from each other, physically, than before the pandemic, how can we still be thinking about our collective responsibility for each other – making sure people are still watching out for each other, especially during such a difficult time? PRATT: In South Florida as a community, we come from so many different places, but one of the things that I've noticed is that we're a very touchy feely community and it's difficult when you see your loved ones and to not want to hug them and tell them you miss them. But right now, that's kind of an issue with COVID. You have to connect with people. If you haven’t talked to someone, give them a call, send them a text. You don't know how they're doing, and you may be the only person who's doing that. So it’s keeping those human connections that are really important. My goal is to be able to fire myself, and I know that sounds funny, but I don't ever want to have a child come to me and think that they are going to be in treatment for life. You're kind of in a rough spot right now, but this isn't forever, and that really is something that affects them because it says, "OK, you think I can do better, my parents think I can do better, my school thinks I can do better" and they have this enormous support around them. They end up doing better. If you'd like to listen to the full conversation, click on the clip at the top of the page.

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.