This is the third of a four-part special report. 

PITTSTON — Tara Sabattis has seen the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on her teenagers and their friends first hand.

She has home-schooled her 15-year-old daughter and 14-year-old granddaughter for about three years for health reasons.

Though home-schooled, both are students in Maine School Administrative District 11, and pre-pandemic they volunteered at the local animal shelter, played basketball at the YMCA and saw friends.

Now they can’t do any of those activities.

“I think most parents aren’t spending the day with their children, and not noticing or recognizing the emotions and the trauma that it’s putting the kids through,” Sabattis said. “If they had to be at home every day, they’d see. I’m home so I can.”

She has seen personality and attitude changes in her daughter and granddaughter, and heard from other parents about their children. One of her girls’ friends threatened to hurt themselves because the toll isolation has taken on their mental health. Another was stuck inside for weeks, afraid to see anyone that might give them the virus.

Sabattis thinks it can be easy to miss those changes, and said stigma that exists around mental health issues also presents a challenge for young people who may be reaching out for help.

“These are real emotions that they are feeling,” she said. “This is a new thing for all of us and kids don’t have the skills that adults have (to process).”

Sabattis allows her girls to see friends that are “in their bubble,” but worries about the friends that her girls have told her about. She doesn’t know if the friends have the same resources that her girls do.

Kristel Thyrring, youth mental health program director for NAMI Maine, poses for a portrait Jan. 27 outside her Hallowell office. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

MENTAL HEALTH CHECK-INS ARE A COMMUNITY EFFORT

Kristel Thyrring, the youth mental health program director from the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health, emphasized the fact that checking in with children’s mental health is a community effort.

NAMI offers resources free of charge for people of all ages, and they have a variety of options.

Sources of Strength is a suicide prevention program that focuses on the relationships that children have around them, showing them that help can look different depending on where you go for it.

“Some days a parent might be a support, some days a positive support may be a friend, and that’s OK,” Thyrring said. “It looks different for everyone, and that’s OK that it changes.”

She said that 50% of mental health challenges come out by the age of 14 — the age that many are entering high school. By the time someone is in their mid 20s, 75% of mental health challenges are apparent.

“It’s likely that someone in your life is impacted even if you personally don’t have a mental health challenge,” Thyrring said. “You may be impacted by a family member or a friend or a community member, and it’s OK to talk to them about it, even just for a better understanding.”

With a community effort, there is no shortage of people a student could turn to.

Depending on how comfortable a student feels, Thyrring said, a community member could be a janitor, staff worker they are close with, or even the social worker within the school. Having a variety of options can help a student feel more open with the decision on who they share the information with, especially if they are hesitant in sharing.

“There are always going to be holdouts on people that are going to have a hard time discussing or being open and acknowledging,” Thyrring said. “That’s why you build the network (with) more than one trusted adult, and if they are in a situation where a parent doesn’t see, maybe a health teacher or a community member will.”

NAMI also has Mental Health First Aid training that helps people identify ways they can help to someone that may be going through a crisis. In addition, the organization has released a “warmline” that teens, or anyone with a phone, can text and receive guidance or help through a situation.

Asking for help is something that should be normalized, Thyrring said. A trip to a guidance counselor does not always mean something negative.

“It’s OK to not be OK, and it’s even more OK to ask for help,” she said.

When Sabattis wanted help to understand her older daughter’s mental health, she turned to NAMI to learn more. She attended classes and joined a parents group to help her better understand what her daughter and other kids could go through.

With a greater understanding, Sabattis was able to help her daughter give resources to friends that may need them. She helped her daughter see that counseling, therapy and medication is sometimes needed.

Sabittis also educated her daughter that sometimes if a person tries to hurt themselves, it may be their own way of asking for help.

“It’s serious and there is a lot of pressure right now with grades, and I feel like it’s putting a lot of kids over the top,” she said. “I don’t think parents are realizing how hard it is for the kids, and how they are getting through it the best that they can, but parents are not looking through their children’s perspective.”

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