Mental Health

I Made Sure My Kids Knew These 3 Things About The Brain

Delaney Ruston, MD
May 3, 2022
Brain with Amygdala

Data tells us that over half of kids look up information on the internet about anxiety, stress, and depression. And if they are experiencing depression or anxiety, that number goes up to around 90%.

Our youth want and need information. Mental Health Awareness month is a perfect time to share some critical information to boost their mental health literacy. 

The information I’m sharing today is key for our kids to know and for us parents and teachers. And gosh, was this true for me big time.

My daughter had to endure depression for many of her high school days. My husband and I did a lot of work to learn ways to communicate with her in more effective ways. Erggg, it is so challenging to know what to say, what not to say, when to step in and help, and when to give more space. Screenagers Next Chapter follows our story, along with several others, and in the film, you see part of what I learned about how to communicate better with Tessa. 

The film also has a lot of brain science, and youth who see the film often tell me how fascinated they are by this science. 

Today I share three important brain health messages to get to our kids. Also, to share language you can use with them ongoing — whether it’s about their own mental health, others in the family, or peers and beyond. 

1. There are demonstrable brain changes when a person is dealing with clinical mental health challenges. 

The number one thing I would say to Tessa during her hard days was, “Hun, it’s not you; it's your brain.” 

This message is crucial because clinical depression and clinical anxiety are master liars. They tell us things like, “This is your fault.” “You should be able to control yourself. Stop feeling this way, you idiot!”  LIES! 

Over time Tessa adopted this language, and she would talk about what her brain was doing. She would tell me she found it helpful to see things in terms of her brain and not her, per se. This allowed her to get a bit of distance and relief from depression.

When talking about a relative of ours last week, Tessa said, “It is so interesting to see how their brain works.” This relative has many qualities that can elicit frustration and anger in others, and it was so beautiful to hear Tessa talk in this way. She was calm and had a loving tone to her voice.  

When I see teens with mental health problems in clinic, I talk with them about it being a brain situation. I know that thinking of this in this way can be very helpful from the look in their eyes and what they tell me.

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2. These brain changes are not permanent! 

Brain health can get better with time and different strategies — even all the way better. The brain scans of people who have recovered from a mental health challenge will look just like what we see in control groups, i.e., people who are not experiencing a mental health struggle. 

Woven into the stories in Screenagers Next Chapter are all sorts of skills that teens (and parents) can learn to do to help teens better cope with, and heal from, mental health challenges. For example, in the movie, we meet Olivia, a 15-year-old teen girl who has had clinical anxiety for several years. We hear from Olivia and her parents how she retrained her brain to stop interpreting certain things she felt were dangerous to be things she wouldn’t fear. For example, when she was in social situations, her brain would send her a red flashing “WARNING, WARNING” signal. She needed to train her brain to see that this was not the case. 

Functional MRIs — which show real-time activity levels in specific brain regions —  have revealed that the two little nuggets called our amygdalas (people often say amygdala, but we actually have one on both sides of the brain) are the main locations where anxious feelings get generated. In people with clinical anxiety, scientists can see increased activity in the amygdalas of people with clinical anxiety when presented with certain stimuli. They don’t see the same activity level in non-clinically anxious controls. 

It is so important that our kids know that when people with anxiety learn skills and do the skills over time, scientists see the amygdala activity change — clinically anxious people’s brains show patterns similar to the controls.

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3. When we show kindness to people who are dealing with mental health challenges, we not only help them, but we boost our own brain health. 

We all know this, but there are many reasons we don’t do it as much as we would like  — we’re busy, we worry we may say the wrong thing, etc.

Might your teen want to leave a picture of nature with a tiny note on a friend’s locker who is going through a hard time? How about reaching out to a past friend who faced hardship to ask how they are doing and telling them they miss them. (When a friend tells me they miss me, it's like a tiny gift. I often tell friends that I miss them because I know how good that can feel.)

As Mother’s Day approaches, for us parents, is there a mom we know is facing emotional stressors, and we want to drop off a couple of bars of Theo’s (my favorite) chocolate? 

Questions to get the conversation going:

  1. Are you seeing any discussion, like at school, about Mental Health Awareness Month?
  2. What do you think about how researchers can see actual different activity in the brain?
  3. In what ways do you find that hard emotions can be liars?
  4. What are some examples of people we have seen get better emotionally/ mentally?
  5. Is there someone for whom we might want to do a tiny act of kindness? 
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Mental Health

I Made Sure My Kids Knew These 3 Things About The Brain

Delaney Ruston, MD
May 3, 2022
Brain with Amygdala

Data tells us that over half of kids look up information on the internet about anxiety, stress, and depression. And if they are experiencing depression or anxiety, that number goes up to around 90%.

Our youth want and need information. Mental Health Awareness month is a perfect time to share some critical information to boost their mental health literacy. 

The information I’m sharing today is key for our kids to know and for us parents and teachers. And gosh, was this true for me big time.

My daughter had to endure depression for many of her high school days. My husband and I did a lot of work to learn ways to communicate with her in more effective ways. Erggg, it is so challenging to know what to say, what not to say, when to step in and help, and when to give more space. Screenagers Next Chapter follows our story, along with several others, and in the film, you see part of what I learned about how to communicate better with Tessa. 

The film also has a lot of brain science, and youth who see the film often tell me how fascinated they are by this science. 

Today I share three important brain health messages to get to our kids. Also, to share language you can use with them ongoing — whether it’s about their own mental health, others in the family, or peers and beyond. 

1. There are demonstrable brain changes when a person is dealing with clinical mental health challenges. 

The number one thing I would say to Tessa during her hard days was, “Hun, it’s not you; it's your brain.” 

This message is crucial because clinical depression and clinical anxiety are master liars. They tell us things like, “This is your fault.” “You should be able to control yourself. Stop feeling this way, you idiot!”  LIES! 

Over time Tessa adopted this language, and she would talk about what her brain was doing. She would tell me she found it helpful to see things in terms of her brain and not her, per se. This allowed her to get a bit of distance and relief from depression.

When talking about a relative of ours last week, Tessa said, “It is so interesting to see how their brain works.” This relative has many qualities that can elicit frustration and anger in others, and it was so beautiful to hear Tessa talk in this way. She was calm and had a loving tone to her voice.  

When I see teens with mental health problems in clinic, I talk with them about it being a brain situation. I know that thinking of this in this way can be very helpful from the look in their eyes and what they tell me.

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