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One option is having school-based mental health programs that offer peer support leaders.
A new C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health at Michigan Medicine found that one in three parents are strongly in favor of a peer support program. The poll also asked questions that got at the heart of pros and cons of this type of program.
"Peers may provide valuable support for fellow teens struggling with emotional issues because they can relate to each other," said Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark. "Some teens may worry that their parents will overreact or not understand what they're going through. Teachers and school counselors may also have limited time to talk with students in the middle of other responsibilities."
Teen mental health is a big issue, with one in five teens experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression, according to a Michigan Medicine news release. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens.
Previous research suggests that up to half of children and teens with a treatable mental health disorder don't get help because of several barriers. Even teens who don't have a diagnosed condition may experience occasional issues that can increase the risk of developing depression.
And three-quarters of parents in the poll thought peers could better understand teen challenges, compared to teachers or counselors in the school. The majority also agreed that peer support leaders at school would encourage more teens to talk with someone about their mental health problems.
About 38% believe if their own teen was struggling with a mental health problem, their teen would likely talk to a peer support leader. Another 41% said it was "possible."
The poll, reported Jan. 18, included responses from 1,000 parents of U.S. teens aged 13 to 18.
Teens who serve as mentors in these programs are trained and have oversight from other school or mental health professionals, and are available by walk-in or referral, according to the news release.
"We have seen strong examples of school programs that prepare teens to be good listeners and to identify warning signs of suicide or other serious problems," Clark said.
"The peer support mentors' role is to listen, suggest problem-solving strategies, share information about resources and, when appropriate, encourage their fellow student to seek help. The most essential task is to pick up on signs that suggest the student needs immediate attention, and to alert the adults overseeing the program," she explained.
"While this doesn't replace the need for professional support, these programs offer young people a non-threatening way to start working through their problems," Clark added.
Parent concerns included whether a peer would keep teens' information confidential, whether the peer leader would know when and how to inform adults about a problem, including in a crisis, and whether teens can be trained to provide this kind of support.
About two in three parents would allow their teens to be trained as a peer support leader, but half of parents worried whether there would be sufficient training and that their teen may feel responsible if something bad happened to a student using the program.
"Close connection to knowledgeable adults is an essential part of any school-based peer mental health program, particularly in regard to suicide prevention," Clark said.
SOURCE: Michigan Medicine – University of Michigan, news release, Jan. 18, 2021
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