Confronting the Symptoms of Mental Illness
Dr. Lori Salgado
As Dr. Lori Salgado conducted research interviews for her dissertation, she started hearing the same themes, as if on repeat: “It’s my kid, so I should know what to do,” or “If this is a normal phase, then I need to continue handling it on my own.” What each participant expressed was feeling powerless—not knowing when or how to help their children who may be sad, confused, unable to concentrate, excessively and unnecessarily worried, or overly tired or who were withdrawing from favorite activities with family and friends.
Notably, she found that parents who had firsthand experience with mental health issues were much more likely to seek treatment for their own children—often within one year. Those who did not, however, traveled a much longer path to care.
“My research showed that parents, particularly those who felt they had strong parenting skills, waited as many as 6 to 10 years before seeking treatment for their children,” Dr. Salgado says. “They rationalized. They tried to handle things themselves. They waited, they agonized, and then they waited some more. But as soon as someone reached out to them—a teacher, a counselor, another parent—and used explicit words to express concern and validate their perceptions, then the parents sought treatment for their children relatively quickly.”
The PhD in Public Policy and Administration graduate, who is the president of the board of directors of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Colorado Springs, was recently honored with a 2017 Harold L. Hodgkinson Award for her dissertation, Experiences of Colorado Parents as They Recognized Their Child’s Mental Illness. In it, she makes a few very important recommendations, which are applicable to parents and policymakers alike.
If you’re a concerned parent, seek help. Even if the behaviors fluctuate, it’s worth seeking a professional opinion, particularly if you’ve been concerned for longer than two weeks. “Trust your intuition and talk to someone,” Dr. Salgado says. “It’s always OK to seek help. These are treatable conditions.”
If you’re a leader within a school district, consider adopting formal guidelines for mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers clear warning signs and a fact sheet, but consider creating a policy for your district so teachers, counselors, and parents know when to voice a concern and how to do so. Just like many schools have standardized vision and hearing screenings, adding a free mental health screening to benefit students may also help normalize discussing these issues.
Help reduce stigma by talking about mental health. Sharing your experiences or asking others about theirs is immeasurably helpful, Dr. Salgado says. If you’re a teacher, chances are you’ll probably recognize behaviors as symptoms before the parents do. “The effect of someone reaching out to express concern may help someone choose to seek professional treatment,” she says. “Help one another. And, most importantly, encourage others to have similar conversations.”