Be preventative not reactive with youth mental health concerns
Prevention and early intervention are key, rather than reactive measures, when it comes to youth anxiety and depression, according to a leading psychiatrist who has been researching child and youth mental health for years.
Dr. Peter Silverstone, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta, said preventative measures rather than reactive responses are the most effective, cost efficient methods in improving mental health issues with young people.
Dr. Silverstone will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Rural Mental Health Conference, taking place in Brooks on Nov. 12-14 and will talk about his research and in particular, mental health issues in rural communities.
A number of years ago Silverstone developed a screening program where students could answer questions about struggles with alcohol, anxiety, depression, quality of life, self-esteem, and substance misuse.
One day when he was driving and heard the superintendent (Stu Henry) of the Red Deer Public School Division (RDPSD) talking on the radio about a number of teen suicides that had taken place within the school division and saw the opportunity for a program that could address the early signs of youth anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
"I called him up and he was receptive to the idea of a combination approach," said Silverstone, who was the first scientific director for the Strategic Clinical Network in Addiction and Mental Health for Alberta Health Services before joining the U of A.
The Empathy Program, designed to lower teen suicide rates, involved the U of A, Red Deer PCN (Primary Care Network), Alberta Health Services, and RDPSD.
"Red Deer Public Schools got involved and we got funding from AHS," he said.
Starting in 2013, the program ran for 15 months for Grades 6-12 Red Deer students, with more than 6,000 students participating.
Over the course of the program, the percentage of students who were actively suicidal dropped from 4.4 percent to 2.8 percent.
Rates of anxiety and depression also decreased.
"If you give them the tools they need to deal with their mental health issues, it will have a positive impact on them and on society," he said.
Despite the encouraging results, funding for the program was cut.
"It was a successful program; unfortunately, we didn't get any further funding," he said.
More recently, he has been conducting research at Fort McMurray where there is a high rate of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder following the devastating 2016 fires.
He and his team have collected information on 3,200 students, information that would assist them in reducing the rates of PTSD among the community's young people.
"Mental health issues are so widespread and so neglected. We have to intervene early. It's about early intervention and prevention, he said.
The first step is recognizing that something is happening.
"When it comes to prevention, awareness is absolutely number one. If you aren't looking and aware, you won't find it. If you notice a change in a child, that's number one," he said.
Part of that is watching for signs that the child or teen -or adult, for that matter, may be experiencing depression or other mental health issues.
"People will give subtle answers like "I'm fine" when the opposite is true."
Silverstone understands that people in rural communities may not have adequate supports close by, but mental health concerns are just as prevalent in small towns as they are in urban centres.
"I recognize resources are limited in rural areas. There are more supports in urban, dense areas than in rural. But mental health affects people in rural communities just as much. It's very real in small towns and rural homelessness is linked to it," said Silverstone.
It is important for people to not be critical when they are aware of somebody having mental health concerns.
"Don't criticize. Bullying comes in all kinds of contexts for young people and adults. In the workplace, sometimes, they recognize they are doing something wrong, but quite often they do not. People need to recognize that what you say may impact another person in a very negative way," he said.
Silverstone is hoping people who listen to his presentation at the conference will leave with the tools needs for helping somebody with anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. "How do you help somebody who is young? You need to recognize the concerns whether it's anxiety, low self-esteem, substance abuse or something else. How can I combat these things? You absolutely need to get help and hopefully,
hope people have the tools people can find the tools they can use in their own communities," he said.
Silverstone has done extensive research on anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts over the years and has focused heavily on children, youth, and teenagers over the past several years.
He came to Alberta from Oxford University 26 years ago, where he completed his doctoral studies and trained in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital and Institute of Psychiatry.
"I've been here a long time and am now an Albertan in every sense. But, we have a big problem here," he said.
While people can do their part in recognizing and helping somebody with mental health concerns, the government needs to provide funding for successful programs like the Empathy Program that showed encouraging results in Red Deer a few years ago.
"We need to advocate so those things are funded and operated properly," he said.
DR. PETER SILVERSTONE