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Regular checkups with a mental health professional can help promote healthy choices

It is an oddity of human nature that we so often fail to react to troubling developments until they reach the level of a crisis.

Such was the case with the recent episode involving some local high school students who posted photos online showing themselves doing a Nazi salute in front of plastic cups arranged in the shape of a swastika.

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The ensuing nationwide media storm prompted a robust response by school officials and other community leaders, and they should be commended for their efforts. But why haven’t other swastikas — which students report are often found drawn on restroom doors, school walls and classroom desks — being immediately removed and greater efforts made to identify and deal with the offenders?

It shouldn’t have taken a media-fueled scandal to realize there’s a problem.

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There was a similar dynamic at play in connection with the college admissions bribery and cheating scheme run by a Newport Beach businessman. The brazenness of the scam is shocking, yet it occurred within the context of an environment that’s been seriously out of whack for a long time.

Again, the soul searching — in this case regarding a college admissions process skewed toward the wealthy — was prompted because of a sensational case.

Now we are arguably experiencing a crisis in youth mental health.

Just last month a new study found the percentage of U.S. teens reporting symptoms of major depression increased by 52% over the past decade, while the rate for young adults rose by 63%.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among our youth, claiming more lives than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined.

With those alarming trends in mind, I sat up and took notice when the same concerns about our tendency to react only when there is a crisis were raised during a recent panel discussion on youth mental health organized by the Patrick’s Purpose Foundation.

The foundation, dedicated to promoting mental wellness in teens, was started by the family of Patrick Turner, a 16-year-old Corona del Mar High School student who committed suicide in January 2018.

The panel included Dr. Sina Safahieh, a Newport Beach psychiatrist and program director for Aspire, a youth mental health intervention and education program at Hoag; Dr. David Sack, a neurobehavioral consultant at Hoag Hospital; Dr. Jerry Weichman, a clinical psychologist; and educator and author Daniel Patterson, who runs the Newport Beach consulting firm Patterson Perspective.

I spoke with Safahieh after the program. Orange County has seen one of the highest rates of increase in youth suicide, he said. According to county officials, nine young people took their own lives in the first three months of the year in O.C., compared with seven in all of 2018.

“I wouldn’t define it as epidemic yet, but it’s a cluster,” Safahieh said. “We’re at the precipice now in our community.”

In response, last month the Orange County Board of Supervisors committed $600,000 to the creation of a countywide suicide-prevention program.

While that’s a positive step, Safahieh and the other panelists stressed that tackling this problem will require us to change the way we think about mental health care.

Mental health should not be treated only when there is an emergency, these experts said. Rather, it should be regarded in the same way as all other aspects of healthcare — as an integral part of our overall well-being that we treat proactively and on an ongoing basis.

Parents should become more educated about mental health and learn to identify early warning signs of trouble.

But even the most-educated and attuned parent might still miss subtle cues that their child is at risk.

“A lot of kids, and adults, do a great job of putting on these masks,” Safahieh said.

That’s why regular checkups with a mental health professional can help promote healthy choices, identify areas of concern and head off a potential catastrophe.

Patterson uses the analogy of twice-yearly dental appointments. Mental health checkups should be as common and routine as a regular teeth cleaning, he said.

If parents “formalize and normalize” this process, he said, it would “allow kids to understand that mental health is like a normal part of healthcare.”

It’s also crucial that we don’t avoid talking to our kids about mental health issues for fear that we will implant negative thoughts, Safahieh said.

“Every serious mental disorder takes root in adolescence,” he noted, and while there is often a genetic component, mental health issues can be greatly exacerbated by stress factors such as lack of sleep, academic rigors and overuse of social media.

While it’s important to be candid with our kids about identifying and coping with these issues, it’s equally vital that we allow them to have down time — away from the stressors of school, technology and social networks.

If we work together to remove the stigma and make mental health care just as high a priority as physical health, perhaps we’ll finally break our habit of acting only when there’s a crisis. And maybe some lives will be saved.

Patrice Apodaca is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, and is the coauthor of “A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid.” She lives in Newport Beach.

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