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Parents told to take signs of stress seriously

October 2, 2018

GREENWICH — Jamie Yee was in the middle of midterm prep when her stomach and chest tightened, her breath shortened and her brain started spinning.

Then the moment, her first panic attack, passed as quickly as it started.

Troubled by the incident, she sought out her health and wellness teacher, Kathleen Steiner, who advised her to see a social worker. The counselor helped her see that studying, not grades, stressed her out.

That was sophomore year. Yee, now a senior, has developed coping mechanisms, such as studying efficiently, playing her ukelele to relax and taking deep breaths.

Still, she student’s struggles with anxiety are not completely behind her.

“Sometimes, when you’re stressed, even though you know you have options, you just think they might not be effective in the moment,” she said.

Yee’s story seems like a far cry from Stephanie Marquesano’s, who told an audience at the Arch Street Teen Center Monday night of her son’s battle with a mental health condition and an opioid abuse problem.

But Marquesano made a case for stress as an important factor in a teen’s mental health, and a potential signal of a co-occurring disorder — simultaneous substance abuse and mental health problems.

After her son’s death, Marquesano started a nonprofit for co-occurring disorders — called The Harris Project.

She argued substance and mental health problems occur together more than they do in isolation.

“Pay attention to what’s going on in your household,” she said. “Oftentimes, we’re so focused on what their grades are, what classes they’re taking, what their coursework looks like. At the end of the day, you want a healthy, happy, well-adjusted child. Sometimes, you have to let go of what your plan is for them and let them live the life that brings them comfort and success.”

Twenty-two percent of teens ages 13 to 18 have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and 50 percent of mental health disorders begin by age 14, Marquesano said. Stress impacts all high school students, but especially the 22 percent with disorders, she said.

Often, the emergence of a problem coincides with a transition, such as moving from middle school to high school, she said.

While her son, Harris, had a mental health disorder and used substances to “feel like everyone else,” Marquesano said other teenagers, especially Type-A students who want to cut loose, can develop mental health challenges when they start abusing substances.

Yee said she knew someone who started using marijuana to cope with the stress of school.

“After sophomore year, he never really took school as seriously as he did before,” she said. “His behavior got more risky after sophomore year.”

Steiner, the adviser of the Outreach Club — which co-hosted the event with two other Greenwich High clubs, the Co-Occurring Disorders Awareness Club and the StressLess Club — has seen other students fall into that trap.

“A lot of times they will go to parties, to drink and smoke, to self-medicate, because that’s how they de-stress,” Steiner said. “Now you’ve got somebody’s high-stressed, high-anxiety, over school, now they’re starting to self-medicate, what are you opening the door to?”

Marquesano had a stern message for parents who offer up their homes as places to party “safely.” Her son — who had stopped seeing his psychiatrist because he thought he could handle his mental health — took prescription pills at a party, became addicted, and was in and out of treatment facilities before he died a year later.

“It’s bad enough that they’re subjecting their child to it, but they have no clue what door they’re opening up to everyone else,” she said.

Josh Brown, a parent to a high school senior, said he will have to digest what he heard Monday night. He did have a word of advice for parents.

“Take the time,” Brown said. “Take the time because I think there are more young adults that struggle and their parents don’t recognize the signs or symptoms of that struggle, or they misdiagnose it. Without knowing much, I just know there are a lot of of kids, that would benefit from having more interested parents who say, ‘I’ve been noticing this.’”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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