Alicia Morgan: The top concern of parents? Their child's mental health

Feb. 5—What's your most serious concern as a parent? It probably depends on the age of your child.

As a parent of a teen, I was not surprised by a new Pew Research Center survey of 3,757 U.S. parents who named mental health as their top worry.

Forty percent of parents of children under 18 say they are either "extremely" or "very" worried their child is struggling with anxiety or depression. That's 1 in 4 parents.

And data backs them up: "Depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 15-19 years," according to the World Health Organization.

The stressors children must meet head-on are overwhelming and as parents we see first-hand what they're up against. From increased pressures in the classroom to social media, extracurricular activities, and strict requirements for admission into just about any program of continuing or higher education, it's not a surprise students suffer from anxiety.

Even though school programming now includes instruction on social and emotional skills like how to practice kindness and what to do when someone is sitting alone on the playground, exposure to a wide-open internet and social media makes the scary parts of the world a lot more visible and a lot more frightening.

Increased awareness and even legislation on inclusion along with efforts such as anti-bullying clubs and counseling elementary students on acceptance were nonexistent 30 years ago. But those gains can be easily looked past as the cruelties of our world play out on our phones 24/7.

Monitoring a child's electronic devices is cumbersome. Keeping track of their online activity and which barriers are too restrictive and which are not is a full-time job. You begin to wonder, does it matter? Won't they see this eventually, somewhere?

Especially as they grow into adolescents, exposure is good for them so they learn how to navigate difficult issues and form their own opinions. At this point about all a parent can do is keep the lines of communication open, guide them as they encounter troubling content online and as they face stressful situations in real life. It's normal for teens not to want to open up to a parent, making it even more scary. I currently struggle with this myself (What's going on in his mind? With his friends? At school, when I'm not around?). Sometimes ... much of the time ... I don't have answers to those questions.

Yet, I have my intuition, know my kid well, and will always make myself available. I try to remind myself how difficult life can be, and look for help when I feel he or I need it.

Dr. Amber Cadick, Behavioral Health coordinator of Union Hospital's Family Medicine Residency, told reporter David Kronke last week that Vigo County has a dire need for therapists with mental health expertise, as at least a third of local patients experience mental health issues, a statistic she imagines being closer to two-thirds.

Parents or closely-trusted mentors must be the answer when experts can't be found or when it takes six months to a year to find a therapist.

Fortunately, these growing needs are being addressed more often across the country, state and here at home.

In likely one of the most collaborative efforts thus far of its kind, the Vigo County School Corp., city, county and law enforcement have devised a plan to make it easier for students and families to report bullying, threats, safety issues or mental health concerns anonymously, reported Sue Loughlin in Friday's Tribune-Star.

The initiative, called Be S.A.F.E., will put several reporting resources in one place; it's currently available on the VCSC website at and will eventually be housed on city, county, Terre Haute police and sheriff's sites as well.

In addition, Union Hospital announced last week it was awarded a $2.25 million grant that will improve training of medical doctors in dealing with mental and behavioral health issues. The grant will equip doctors with more tools and enable the hospital and its partners to do things like sending physicians to specialized pediatric psychiatry training.

The business community is also playing a role and working to increase resources. The Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce's Health and Wellness Task Force has identified four health-related focus areas to improve by the end of 2024. One of those is to develop a comprehensive list of mental health agencies; develop a portfolio of community programs around mental health; connect those providers through the e-intervention CHESS Health referral system.

At the state level, better access to mental and behavioral health services was part of Gov. Eric Holcomb's Next Level Agenda, released in January.

In the General Assembly, currently on the docket is Senate Bill 1, which includes addressing the expansion of community mental and behavioral health services and maintaining a help line.

All of this is good news for parents. Concerns are being addressed. Mental health is finally being taken seriously, somewhat due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought increased attention to an already dire mental health crisis.

In the first year of the pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, according to a scientific brief released by the World Health Organization in March of last year.

Numbers were on the rise, however, long before COVID swept through the country.

In a 2018 Pew survey, 70% of teens reported anxiety and depression as a "major problem" they saw among their peers.

It seems this newest survey, then, is not at all shocking. Once a vast majority of children started reporting mental health as their No. 1 concern, we'd expect parents to soon follow.

The numbers should produce a renewed urgency in us all to gather all the tools at our disposal, and join in the effort to keep our children safe. In the end, it's not just a parent issue. The health of our children and the future of our community are inseparable, and everyone has a stake in that.

Alicia Morgan is the News/Digital Editor for the Tribune-Star and the Editor of Terre Haute Living magazine. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter @TribStarAlicia.