For the past 2 years, Nancy Blanchard and Liz Yoho have been “parent partners” to families navigating their way through a child’s mental health crisis.
“We sit down with parents and help them process their feelings in a supportive, non-judgmental way,” said Nancy. “Having a child admitted to our behavioral health inpatient unit is different than being admitted to other floors. It can be hard to talk about it. There is still the stigma that is not associated with other types of illness – the illnesses that prompt people to rally around you and bring casseroles to your front door. We understand because we have both walked certain paths on the mental health journey with our own families.”
Several weeks ago, Nancy and Liz began thinking about National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day approaching on May 9. They were thinking about simple but catchy ways to get the conversation going when Liz thought of the fortune telling devices that generations of kids have made by folding a square piece of paper and decorating it with letters and numbers.
Her idea soon morphed into “feelings catchers” and, with the help of the mental health experts at Akron Children’s as well as support from the hospital’s Public Relations Department, a plan was put into motion to print 36,000 feelings catcher to distribute on May 9.
The feelings catchers – there is one for younger children up through middle school ages and another one for high school students – allow participants to select a feeling and then unfold a panel to learn a useful strategy for dealing with that feeling, sometimes called a coping skill.
For example, if you are feeling hopeless or confused, you are advised to make a list of things for which you are grateful. For a younger child feeling sad or scared, the advice is to “hug a pet or a stuffed animal.” If you are feeling bullied or unheard, you are advised to talk to your parents or someone you trust.
Beyond the advice, the activity itself is designed to promote social interaction and get kids talking – to parents, to siblings, to grandparents, to friends on the school bus.
“When you keep feelings inside, you are more likely to feel alone and isolated,” said Dr. Laura Gerak, director of Pediatric Psychology at Akron Children’s. “Others don’t have a chance to support you and come along side of you.”
In addition, Dr. Gerak said that by not talking or sharing feelings, you may be missing out on valuable information other people can offer.
“This generation, even more so than previous ones, probably spends more time texting than they do talking,” said Nancy. “Text messages can be misconstrued and there is often a delay when it is received and read. Nothing compares with a good, face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversation. We hope the feelings catchers can help get those conversations started.”
The feelings catchers will be distributed at the hospital on May 9 on patient trays, at information desks and through Akron Children’s network of pediatric offices. In addition, 30,000 students in school districts affiliated with Akron Children’s School Health Services will receive them in their backpacks.
Behavioral changes could be the sign of a problem
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 children between the ages of 13 and 18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness.
Warning signs include:
- Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than 2 weeks.
- Trying to harm or kill oneself or making plans to do so.
- Out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors that can cause harm to self or others.
- Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart, physical discomfort or fast breathing.
- Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to lose weight; significant weight loss or gain.
- Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships.
- Repeated use of drugs or alcohol.
- Drastic changes in behavior, personality or sleeping habits.
- Extreme difficulty in concentration or staying still that can lead to failure in school.
- Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities like hanging out with friends or going to classes.
If parents have any concerns about their child’s behavior, they are encouraged to talk to their pediatrician, get a referral for a mental health specialist, share their concerns with their child’s school, and find support by connecting with other families.
If you would like to download your own feelings catcher to print, here are the links, as well as links for a companion guide, lists of recommended apps and books and other resources.
- Watch Facebook Live from May 8, 2019 with Dr. Steven Jewell, director of pediatric psychiatry and psychology, and Laura Gerak, director of psychology, being interviewed by Betty Lin-Fisher of the Akron Beacon Journal