5 tips to help Tampa Bay parents with their teens’ mental health

A psychologist at All Children’s has advice for families during Mental Health Awareness Month.
A Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital psychologist offers tips for parents struggling with the teen mental health crisis. This is the St. Petersburg hospital pictured in 2020.
A Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital psychologist offers tips for parents struggling with the teen mental health crisis. This is the St. Petersburg hospital pictured in 2020. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2020) ]
Published May 15, 2023

Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, resources are available to help. Please see the information below.

There’s a youth mental health crisis in America — and Tampa Bay isn’t immune.

In late 2021, the U.S. surgeon general said young people faced “devastating” mental health impacts as COVID-19 swept the country. A peer-reviewed study released earlier this month found that suicide-related emergency room visits among children and young adults increased fivefold nationally from 2011 to 2020. Last year, a federal report said 4 in 10 high school students were persistently sad or hopeless.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in a public health advisory said some scientists believe the trends are partly due to young people being more willing to openly discuss mental health concerns. But other researchers, he said, point to the growing use of digital media, increasing academic pressure, limited access to mental health care, and alcohol and drug use as some of the reasons for the crisis.

Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties had an estimated population of nearly 350,000 youths ages 10 to 19 in 2021, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

As local parents navigate the crisis and try to boost their adolescents’ well-being, Jennifer Katzenstein, the director of psychology, neuropsychology and social work at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, offered tips on how to proactively address mental health issues among teens.

Here’s her advice.

What’s the difference between normal teen stress and a serious mental health issue?

Stress, anxiety and mood changes are normal for everyone, including teens. But when such feelings prevent adolescents from engaging in daily life, that’s an indicator of a potential mental health condition, said Katzenstein, who’s also co-director of the hospital’s Center for Behavioral Health.

Consulting a therapist can help clear up what’s happening, she said.

Common teen stressors include pressure to do well at school, bullying, family issues like financial instability, packed social calendars, overexposure to social media and poor sleep habits, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

What should parents do about phones and social media?

Get teens to put their phones down an hour or two before going to sleep, Katzenstein said. Keep the devices in another room to limit distractions at night.

Participating in outdoor activities can be “hugely protective” against mental health issues caused by the overuse of electronics, she added. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies have found links between high levels of social media use and anxiety or depression symptoms.

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Jennifer Katzenstein
Jennifer Katzenstein [ Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital ]

How can you tell if a teen’s mental health is deteriorating?

Watch out for changes in behavior like appetite, sleep or the amount of time they spend alone in their room, Katzenstein said.

Be on the lookout for “lower frustration tolerance” and increased irritability and nervousness, she added. Refusing to go to school is another cause for concern.

“I believe that we’re seeing more crisis situations where parents are (bringing children) to the emergency room,” Katzenstein said, “because we aren’t intervening earlier or recognizing things earlier. ... As we let time go on, these symptoms will worsen.”

How can families address mental health before it spirals into a crisis?

Three or four times a week, parents should set aside up to 10 minutes — without the TV blaring and phones in hand — to talk with their teen about how life is going, Katzenstein said. This can be while driving, walking or hanging out in the living room.

Don’t ask 100 questions, she said. Give your child the space to open up. It’s an easy way to identify behavioral changes.

“Say, ‘... Tell me a little bit about your day,’” Katzenstein said. “’Who do you eat lunch with? What happens when you go to this class?’”

Parents should mostly remain quiet.

“We need to have our adolescents respond. They will fill that silence with something.”

How do you know if a teen is having suicidal ideations?

Watch out for teens giving away belongings and changes in behavior like avoiding friends or family, Katzenstein said.

Keep your home safe by locking up firearms and medications, even Tylenol, she said.

If adolescents express suicidal thoughts like, “I wish I were dead,” it’s time to seek help from a mental health provider, she said. If they have a suicide plan or have attempted suicide, seek emergency intervention.

Call 911 if someone is physically injured, like if they’re bleeding from self-cutting, she said. The national suicide prevention hotline, 988, offers free crisis counseling to those thinking of harming themselves.

Need help?

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat with someone online at