You have just heard the term “mental health” for the first time. You are 16 years old and, like many teens, a pro at hiding your sadness. You throw yourself into sports and new friendships and the speech and debate team. On the outside, you are okay. On the inside, you are suffering.
Shortly after learning about mental health, you begin your healing journey. It takes time, but you do start to feel better. And, with the help of your therapist, you now feel worthy. You just wish mental health was talked about earlier on in your time in foster care.
Every day, children across the country—including those in foster care—can suffer deeply from mental illnesses. But there are things that you, as a caregiver, can do to help.
As a foster parent, here’s what you can do to support youth mental health
1. Prioritize a child’s cultural identity while they’re in your care. Cultural identity impacts well-being. Prioritizing a child’s culture can look like a lot of things. Here’s one example: A child starts to see a therapist, but that therapist doesn’t understand and honor their identity. The child, as a result, is reluctant to share in sessions. As the caregiver, you have the opportunity to advocate for a different therapist or inform the current one about what needs to change.
2. Think about what messages a child is hearing or seeing while in your care. On the National Foster Care Month website, one foster and adoptive parent shares how the Black children in his care were never seeing stories that reflected their culture and experiences. This caused a lot of pain and inspired the father to act. He created culturally-competent materials that showed positive stories of Black children.
3. Understand that teens are the experts in their own lives. Allow them to make informed decisions about the mental health services they receive. Then, help connect them.
4. When you see a behavior you don’t understand, such as lying or angry outbursts, try looking beneath the behavior. For example, in “Is it lying or confabulation—and how should I respond?” you’ll learn that a child may not be lying. Instead, anxiety and confusion can impact what they remember. This is sometimes a result of trauma.
5. Connect children with their relatives. Research shows that children and teens benefit from ongoing contact with their first family in many ways. Kids have a stronger sense of belonging and tie to their culture when they stay connected. Plus, many adults who were in foster care as children have reflected on the importance of keeping relationships with their first family.
6. Read stories from people who were in foster care as children on the AdoptUSKids blog and the Children’s Bureau website. Plus, stay in the conversation by following #FosterCareMonth on social media throughout May, where the spotlight is on mental well-being.