A pediatric mental health dream team shared strategies on raising resilient teens during a public conversation at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. The Nov. 3 program, sponsored by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and area organizations, featured an array of nationally recognized professionals and offered insights on keeping kids healthy.
Dr. David Brent, psychiatry and pediatrics professor and endowed chair in suicide studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of STAR-Center (Services for Teens at Risk) at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, moderated the nearly hour-long discussion and asked panelists to discuss resiliency, how parents should address trauma and professional outlets for at-risk children.
Local experts included Dr. Judith A. Cohen, medical director of the Allegheny Health Network’s Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents and professor of psychology at Drexel University College of Medicine; Dr. Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and pediatrics professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and Dr. Gil Zalsman, CEO of Geha Mental Health Center in Israel and chair of Israel’s National Council of Suicide Prevention, all of whom fielded Brent’s inquiries and offered skills for traversing modern challenges.
One such challenge is the exposure to traumatic episodes. Through television, the internet, social media and the 24/7 news cycle, details of highly traumatic events like mass shootings and terrorist attacks are pervasive. While it’s impossible to entirely shut out such reports, the experts recommended taking breaks from technology in the aftermath of these events, especially given that, as Cohen pointed out, reliable information isn’t immediately available. People are inclined to turn to their televisions or phones to seek out details, but the bevy of unsubstantiated stories, claims or images may end up causing harm, panelists said.
“I would echo the importance of staying calm, or radical calmness, in the context of these kinds of experiences,” said Miller.
“After 9/11, lots of teachers had their televisions on in their classrooms, and not only were they exposed, but all the kids in their classrooms were exposed,” said Cohen. Exposure can lead to anxiety. Rather than seeking out immediate information during or after an attack, it’s better to reassure young people who are in an affected community.
“We have to show kids that we are going to keep them safe,” said Cohen. “Even if we don’t feel that way, we have to protect our kids and give them a sense that we know what we’re doing, that we’re going to take care of them.”
Another way to protect children is by ensuring they get enough sleep, which helps with emotional regulation, said Miller.
“Making sure that your kids are sleeping and getting off the phones and internet as much as possible are helpful strategies,” she said. “Because even if they’re off the phones and off the internet, your children are going to hear about what’s going on in their community, but your ability to maintain that very calm and safe space is critical.”
Certain moments may preclude the possibility of turning away from TV or phones, noted Zalsman. In those instances, the best thing to do is to sit by your children and “try to explain, because the most terrible part is that kids cannot understand why this guy killed our friends.”
When discussing trauma with children, some parents might be tempted to share their own experiences. If they do, they need to be careful of the approach, the panelists said. Context matters, and parents need to ask themselves what the purpose of sharing the story is.
“It’s really important to think about what you’re trying to achieve,” said Cohen. “Think carefully about what you think the child’s response will be. Will it be helpful to the child? Will they feel like they need to protect you? Will it make it more likely that they’ll share information with you or less likely?”
As for dealing with trauma’s impact on children, parent-child communication is essential, said Zalsman, especially if cutting or other dangerous behavior is evident.
“Once you see a sign of self-harm, stop everything,” he said. “Don’t go to work. Sit down and force them to talk. They must tell you what’s going on. That’s your responsibility.”
Parents shouldn’t be afraid of asking their children directly about suicide, said Zalsman. One can ask about other matters first, but over the course of the conversation, “don’t be afraid to go to the painful point and ask directly, ‘Do you think of hurting yourself? Have you ever hurt yourself in any way?’ And if the answer is yes, go on and say, ‘Do you think of ending your life?’ And if yes, ‘Do you have a plan?’”
It’s key that parents remove “the means of suicide,” said Zalsman. “Every Jewish family has a little pharmacy at home. Throw it away. Even things you think are safe, like Tylenol, are not safe for kids, and can kill them. Take it away.”
For parents who believe their child is suicidal or “or even if you are not sure, take them to a mental health professional or go to the emergency room, go to your pediatrician, don’t mess around with that,” said Cohen. “You don’t want to regret not doing it. It’s better to do more than less in that situation.”
Before and after the discussion and Q&A, attendees were able to speak with representatives from local agencies or get printed resources at tables. The free event was co-sponsored by Jewish Family & Community Services; 10.27 Healing Partnership; Community Day School; Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh; Yeshiva Schools; The Friendship Circle and The Second Floor at the JCC.
The evening was about “educating parents about signs and symptoms,” said Stefanie Small, of JFCS. “Without education, people are left to flounder on their own.”
“Creating a community-wide conversation around mental health and reducing stigma is always helpful,” said Rabbi Mordy Rudolph, of Pittsburgh’s Friendship Circle.
Ann Giazzoni, a North Hills resident and licensed clinical social worker who attended the event was impressed by the panelists — “superpowers in research,” she said. “To get them all on one stage and watch them talk to each other was amazing.”
“These are the best in their field,” echoed Heidi Leibovich, a Squirrel Hill resident and licensed clinical social worker. “As a therapist, it was very helpful to hear them.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.