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Dignity Health

When Jacob was just 3 years old, his mom noticed that he was acting a little differently than his siblings had at that age.

He had started to develop certain habits and tendencies that were somewhat disconcerting to his family. By the time he turned 5, his pediatrician had diagnosed him with autism.

But after that, his behavioral issues only got worse.


All photos via Dignity Health.

Not only was he falling behind academically, he started acting out uncontrollably in class. One time, he had such a bad tantrum that the students had to be evacuated from the classroom while members of the faculty subdued him.

His teacher saw enormous potential in Jacob, but she was unable to get through to him.

"He's a brilliant kid, he has great ideas," she says, "Putting that on paper is really hard."

His mother, Erika, felt similarly.

"I know he felt alone, and he didn't know how to express himself well enough to have us even understand how it was impacting him, but we could see it in his face," Erika explains.

She felt at the end of her rope. She knew she had to do something new to help him since what they were currently doing didn't seem to be working.

So Erika decided to take him to see a new pediatrician — Dignity Health's Dr. Andrew Katz.

And he made a surprising suggestion — maybe Jacob's autism diagnosis was wrong?

"Erika's main concern was does my child have autism, but it wasn't really my leading thought," Katz says.

Katz with Jacob and his mom.

While this second opinion was certainly momentous, it's not all that strange given this country's pre-occupation with autism.

Studies have shown that ever since researchers started tracking autism rates in the United States in 2000, the number of cases has risen dramatically, almost in tandem with the growing awareness. This suggests that it's more likely to come up as a possible diagnosis simply because it's on parents' and doctors' radars.

Thankfully, however, Katz is very discerning. He listened intently to what both Erika and Jacob had to say and came to a totally different conclusion than what they'd heard in the past.

Katz told Erika he thought her son actually had a severe case of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).

He also said that Jacob's behavioral issues would likely resolve once he was on the right medication.

Sure enough, within just a few days of being properly medicated, Jacob's behavior totally turned around. He began talking more articulately and focusing on tasks. His experience at school changed; he was more social, he was able to deal with disappointments in much more constructive ways, and his academic performance improved significantly.

The switch was truly amazing for everyone who cared about him to behold.

"For a while with the diagnosis of autism, we were wondering if Jacob would ever be able to live on his own or get a job," Erika remarks. "And now, he's capable of taking care of himself, and I really don't question that anymore."

Of course, not all diagnoses are misdiagnoses, but sometimes it's worth getting a second opinion, especially when you're dealing with unfamiliar territory.

For Jacob's family, the move was life-changing. Anyone who's met him can see that.

"He's compassionate, he's intelligent, he's thoughtful, he's organized, which is amazing for someone with the diagnosis he has," Jacob's teacher says. "In the future, I think Jacob can do whatever he wants. I think he'll be just fine."

Check out the whole story behind Jacob's diagnosis here:

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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"Rules are a bit more rigid, attention and validation is directed and somewhat excessive," Niro Feliciano, LCSW, a psychotherapist and anxiety specialist, told Parents. "As a result, firstborns tend to be leaders, high achievers, people-pleasing, rule-following and conscientious, several of the qualities that tend to predict success."

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