joggingWhen thinking about preventing mental illness, substance abuse, or risky behaviors, the focus is often on spotting “warning signs.” We offer treatment once problems have come up, trying to catch the symptoms before they have become severe. But what are we waiting for? Doesn’t it make sense that we provide instruction in mental health in the first place? Just as we provide education regarding physical health, information regarding mental health is as necessary.

The following are three facts that we can live by and teach to adolescents. Prevention of mental illness is actually  promotion of  mental health. There is no reason to wait!

We have the freedom to choose. Every action we take, as well as every thought that we think, has an impact on us. There is a difference between how I would feel if I chose to spend four hours sitting alone to watch reality TV opposed to exercising outside, cleaning, or and spending time with positive friends. We are constantly making choices, moment by moment. We choose how we respond to our environments and to ourselves. We can choose to respond to an obstacle with resentment or with gratitude. We can choose to isolate or to connect with others. All of our choices matter, every single one. We can teach teenagers that we are responsible for ourselves, and have the ability to make changes in a positive direction at any time.

Self awareness is essential; it takes effort and it’s an ongoing process. This means developing an awareness of our body’s physical reactions, our thoughts, and our feelings. This can be challenging at first, but can also be the key to truly understanding ourselves. We can assist in developing self awareness by teaching teenagers about noticing their breathing, where their body tenses up when they are stressed, nervous, sad, etc. We can also encourage teens to monitor their thoughts and their feelings. This can happen through writing in a journal in which they focus on thoughts related to themselves and others. We can also help to facilitate this by expressing that there are no “bad” feelings, and to acknowledge them as they come up. We are born with a capacity for self awareness but this is also learned.  With guidance, teenagers are able to develop self awareness, a skill that can be a source of strength and stability.

We have control over our thoughts. As they say in recovery, “we don’t have control over our first thought, but we have control over our second and third.” After paying attention to the thoughts we have, it is good to know that we can create the thoughts we choose to repeat to ourselves. We can dispute negative thoughts; we have the ability to recognize a negative or irrational thought, and replace it with one that is healthy and realistic. And example would be to replace “no matter what I do, things never work out” with “things didn’t work out this time, so I will do things differently.” We can model this and help teens with it by talking about the difference between irrational thoughts which often leave us feeling badly and rational thoughts which help us to problem solve and remain stable. The truth is that many of our negative emotional states and situations are fueled by thoughts that are not even accurate, they are distorted. So, when we stick to reality we actually feel better and do better!

Teens jogging image available from Shutterstock.