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Building Emotionally Healthy Adolescents

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Dr. Gretchen Karstens, St. Luke's Pediatric AssociatesPublished in Moms & Dads Today magazine, March/April 2016

Building Emotionally Healthy Adolescents

Mental Health Screenings at St. Luke's Pediatric Associates and the Power of Resilience

Just the words “junior high” are enough to make some adults wince.

Memories of their adolescent years are a mixed bag. On one hand, there are all the joys that come with new friends, new responsibilities and new privileges. On the other hand, there are sometimes painful reminders about the “awkward years,” parental clashes and feelings of isolation—and even depression.

In recent years, more and more attention is being paid to adolescent mental health. According to Dr. Gretchen Karstens, a board-certified pediatrician at St. Luke’s Pediatric Associates, the result has been an increasing understanding of the need to treat adolescents’ mental and emotional health, as well as their physical well-being.

“There is a stigma in our society around mental health issues, and wanting or needing treatment to help deal with mental illness. This is even more pronounced in youth,” said Dr. Karstens. “If you broke your arm and didn’t do anything, people would give you a hard time and tell you to get help. If you are depressed and don’t do anything, you are celebrated in our society as having a ‘stiff upper lip.’”

The importance of screenings

In order to address potential mental health issues in adolescents, St. Luke’s Pediatric Associates has implemented a series of screenings to help parents and their children better understand what’s happening in the space between kids’ ears. Dr. Heather Winesett, another board-certified St. Luke’s pediatrician, explained the cadence of the screenings. “At St. Luke’s, mental health screenings start when a child is two weeks old, then again at two and six months. This involves a check-in with mom and dad to see how they are doing, and what they are feeling as new parents. We do this because parents’ mental health has a huge impact on their children’s health.”

These screenings eventually sync up with children’s annual exams. When a child reaches his or her teenage years, the screenings begin to shift in focus. Said Dr. Winesett, “During the teen years, we start to meet with parents and kids separately. This gives the teen more autonomy, which allows us to talk more candidly about how they are doing, emotionally and mentally. And we take our time—whereas the national average time a pediatrician spends with a patient is around six minutes, here, it’s about 20.”

The power of resilience

According to Dr. Karstens, one of the key attributes that they are looking for in adolescents is resilience. “The American Psychological Association defines ‘resilience’ as the ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats—or even significant sources of stress. Essentially, it is the ability to cope with all the things that are coming at you in daily life.”

To help build resiliency in adolescents, Dr. Karstens emphasized the need to take a holistic look at all aspects of their lives. “In medicine, we have come to recognize the value of context,” she said. “For example, if all I do is treat your high blood pressure, but don’t address diet and exercise or understand your social environment, we probably aren’t addressing the underlying problems that led to the high blood pressure. Same thing with mental health. Home life plays a huge role in building resilience in kids.”

Similarly, said Karstens, building resilience and treating mental health issues aren’t just the job of the physician. “It takes a team approach. In addition to the physician, our care team consists of clinical assistants, care coordinators and community partners—schools, churches and groups that form networks.”

Dr. Heather Winesett, St. Luke's Pediatric AssociatesEquipping kids with the tools they need

For Dr. Winesett, making a difference in the physical and mental health of her young patients is extremely gratifying. “As children move into adolescence, they want to take control over their lives, and we now have more tools to help them do that. By engaging with them about what they are thinking, what they are feeling and what they are dealing with, we can help them learn to be resilient and overcome and deal with the issues they face everyday.”

Four ways to build resilience in kids

Dr. Gretchen Karstens, a board-certified pediatrician at St. Luke’s Pediatric Associates, cites the power of community as one of most influential forces in building resiliency in kids. Community-building activities at the family, social and societal levels can greatly impact your child’s resiliency.

1. Have a meal together

Eating together is a powerful bonding experience. It’s a time when people naturally let their guard down and share at a really emotionally vulnerable level.

2. Have fun together

Routine is important, but disrupting routines to have spontaneous fun with one another is a great way to strengthen the relationships that help build resiliency.

3. Look outside the home for things in the community you can do together

Taking the focus off of home life and putting it on community activities—like a service project—can give adolescents the confidence to go outside their comfort zones.

4. Time is the best gift that you can give your kids

In the end, just being there, being fully engaged, giving your child your undivided attention does wonders in instilling them with a sense of well-being and confidence.