Grand Mental Health professional shares perspective, hope for teenagers

May 25—May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and one agency in Payne County is focused on expanding and developing its services to provide for teenagers with mental illnesses.

Grand Mental Health hosted a community lunch-and-learn session on Wednesday at Meridian Technology Center to bring light to the services they provide, in addition to new and developing services.

The mental health agency in northeast Oklahoma operates facilities in 12 counties as well as three crisis centers.

Jordan Westbrook, a licensed clinical social worker and regional officer for GMH in Payne County, said there's been an uptick in mental health concerns for teenagers, and COVID-19 only revealed an ongoing issue.

"The pandemic in general shined a light on, whether we liked it or not, the fact that young people are experiencing mental health concerns — and unfortunately during the pandemic — at a rapidly increasing rate," Westbrook said.

Teenagers are "always developing human beings," Westbrook said.

"Their bodies, their minds, their sense of self is constantly developing, arguably up until about the age of 25 when we reach our full neurological capacity," Westbrook said.

He said the most important thing to a teenager during that developmental stage of adolescence is social interaction and friends. Some teenagers came through the pandemic with resilience, but some did not.

"Resilience is this idea that you can bounce back and you can weather the storm," Westbrook said. "We have a lot of young people that are very resilient, but we probably have just as many that are struggling in that area and don't have the bandwidth to handle all of this stuff."

Westbrook said the top concerns he sees among clients is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety related to time spent on social media and depression.

He said Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, of any other state.

Children and teenagers experience PTSD from physical abuse, sexual abuse, separation from a parent or guardian who has been incarcerated, living in a disorganized home or a home that lacks resources for basic needs like food or clothes.

"PTSD is probably grossly under-diagnosed, and that's simply because the young person hasn't made it in to see a mental health professional," Westbrook said. "These are young people that are currently experiencing what is arguably a traumatic event, or many traumatic events, and they are living their lives just trying to cope and manage."

Social media also has played a role in mental health struggles.

"We're looking at how social media has an impact on what it's like to be a young person in the school setting every day," Westbrook said.

He said teenagers experience the average pressures of achievement that go along with school, and bullying has become an issue.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health releases the Oklahoma Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a national school-based survey from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention every two years.

In 2021, the survey revealed 16% of high school students were bullied electronically, with 18% bullied on school property. Bullying included not only cyber bullying and on-site bullying, but also gossip and lies.

"If school isn't a safe place to be and if being stuck at home isn't a place where you want to be either, then where is a young person going to go," Westbrook said. "Self-harm and thoughts of suicide as well as suicidal behavior — and even suicidal attempts — have increased over the last few years."

From January to mid-May, GMH reported serving 15,003 adults and children from all ages across the agency. Of those, 6,262 were children.

Clients 12-19 totaled 3,494. Of that amount, 2,071 were female and 1,413 were male.

In Payne County, GMH served 310 clients from ages 12-19. Of those, 184 were female and 124 were male.

Westbrook said that gender dysphoria has taken a toll on mental health.

Teenagers who already struggle with depression find the added physical health issues to be challenging.

"Unfortunately, what we find is that they experience a lot of negative impacts on their well being when it comes to mental health (and) when it comes to their physical health, and these things are tied together," Westbrook said. "That only is going to exacerbate those problems that were already there before."

Westbrook noted that everything that happens to us when we are younger has an impact on us for the rest of our lives.

"That's a pretty profound thing to consider," Westbrook said. "All young people are just trying to figure out who they are — that's the ultimate goal."

Westbrook said that all behavior is communicating something. He said adults should rethink how to approach a teenager.

"(We say), 'What's wrong with you?', and that's the wrong way to think about it," Westbrook said. "We need to switch that up and say to ourselves, 'What happened to you or what might be happening to you?'"

He said if a teenager has one consistent, positive adult in their life, that could be the one thing that is needed to buffer the trauma that the young person is experiencing, because there are not enough mental health professionals serving to help with the growing need.

But one person can make a difference.

"We're talking about a teacher, coach, someone from a religious institution, a parent, an uncle, a cousin, a brother, a friend, Westbrook said. "Not the person that comes in and out of your life — the person you can count on."

The mental health profession will experience a 4.5 million worker shortfall over the next five years.

"We can't count on just therapists anymore," Westbrook said. "We've got to all understand how much we can contribute in a positive way to a young person's livelihood."