Here’s a sobering statistic: During the past three years since the pandemic, the number of kids visiting the Emergency Room at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital for children’s mental health disorders has increased by 300 percent.
That’s a three-fold increase.
Here’s another number: When it comes to available mental health resources, Florida (one of the most populous states) ranks a dismal 48 out of 51 (including the District of Columbia).
BayCare Kids “On Our Sleeves” Movement for Children’s Mental Health
However, a partnership between BayCare Kids and a dynamic, 5-year-old national organization with powerful resources seeks to address the issue by promoting wellness and early intervention. The On Our Sleeves Movement for Children’s Mental Health provides free educational tools and resources that parents and caregivers can use to start conversations with their children, who, after all, don’t wear their thoughts on their sleeves.
“We are excited about bringing this resource to west central Florida,” says Dr. Christina Canody, pediatrician and medical director of BayCare’s Pediatric Service Line. “We are seeing a time when mental health disorders are at an all-time high in our pediatric population. Mental health should be part of an everyday communication, not just when it is a problem.”
The reasons for the increase are varied, Dr. Canody says. The news can create a perception of a dangerous, unstable world, with conflict, climate change and politics always front and center. The pandemic created unique challenges also, particularly in terms of the effects of social isolation.
Preschool and early school-age children, for example, still struggle with responding to emotions and feedback from teachers and other students because they have become accustomed to technological interaction. Older children today are exhausted by an increasingly high-pressure competitive world of test scores, college prestige and competition.
Because half of all mental health disorder symptoms start by the age 14, the middle school and early high school years are a crucial time to catch signs and start treatment early before things spin into crisis mode. However, although more parents are open to seeking help from professionals, many don’t know exactly how to communicate with their children about these matters or even evaluate whether help is needed.
That’s where the BayCare Kids On Your Sleeves initiative can come in. The first step is to break the stigma of these conversations, says Dr. Canody. The program’s curated resources include conversation starters about current events, social media and bullying, to name a few.
You can learn how to start and keep a conversation going, how to boost confidence, and how to foster a sense of belonging. The resources are refreshed every six to eight weeks so that there will always be something new for you to use. For those families ready to take the next step, the pediatrician’s office is the best place to begin.
Dr. Canody is excited about bringing this easy-to-use national resource to our area and hopes to spread its use far and wide. As well as the BayCare Kids website and BayCare facilities, including pediatrician offices and the mobile clinics, On Our Sleeves will be shared through monthly articles with the Hillsborough County School District also.
“We want it to be available to anybody and everybody,” she says.
Tips for Conversation Starters:
- Ask open ended questions, like “What was the hardest part of your day?”
- Choose a daily time for regular conversation, like an evening walk after dinner.
- Share about your day to model healthy habits, while keeping the details age-appropriate.
Tips to Keep the Conversation Going:
- Make sure your body language does not reveal stress. Nod and breathe.
- Don’t interrupt with a barrage of questions; pause and let them guide the flow.
- Thank them for sharing and validate their emotions with statements like “That must have been difficult to share with me. I’m so grateful that you did.”
Tips for After a Conversation
- Let them try and problem solve before you jump in with advice.
- Frame your questions with “what” rather than “why.” Say “What made you do something,” rather than “Why did you do that?”
- Ask them if they want to hear your suggestions before telling them what you plan to do.
Visit BayCareKidsOnOurSleeves.org to:
- Sign up for a monthly e-newsletter that features actionable, timely mental health information
- Download tips and tools to help facilitate conversations with kids and teens
- Learn how to recognize and respond to children in or at risk of crisis
*Presented by BayCare | Originally published in the November 2023 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine