With limited time and a lot to talk about, Dr. Jacob Towery told an audience of about 200 at Hillview Middle School on Nov. 8 that one of his favorite strategies for boosting the mental health of teens, and their parents, is making sure they get more sleep.
Dr. Towery is an adolescent psychiatrist with a private practice in Palo Alto. A former teacher and a parent, he attended Duke University as an undergraduate and medical school at the University of Virginia. He did a residency and fellowship at Stanford University, where he is on the adjunct faculty at the School of Medicine.
He has written a book for young people called "The Anti-Depressant Book: A Practical Guide for Teens and Young Adults to Overcome Depression and Stay Healthy."
Connecting with adolescents may be made easier by the fact that Dr. Towery currently has a mohawk haircut, and counts snowboarding and scuba diving as things he loves to do.
The topic of his talk, part of the Menlo Park City School District's parent education speaker series, was "Anxiety and Depression in Teenagers." Dr. Towery urged parents to be role models for children.
"Model the life that you would like your children to lead," he said. "If you would like your children to work 60 hours a week and almost never take vacations, do that."
"If you think living a good and balanced life is healthy, do that," he said.
Sleep is important. Getting eight hours a night, he said, means "you will be more well-rested, you will be a better parent."
For children, he said, sleep can fight anxiety and depression.
His sleep strategy starts with figuring out what time a child (or adult) needs to get up to "eat breakfast, take a shower and maybe have 15 minutes for meditation (which he highly recommends) ... and then count back nine hours." The result, he said, "is the time devices disappear from your child's room, every single night."
Once phones, laptops, tablets and the power cords for television sets and desktop computers are gone, he said, "they can draw, they can meditate" or "do an old-fashioned thing like read a book."
"They will get enough sleep because they're bored," he said.
Dr. Towery warned that children will probably resist the changes. "They are going to argue with you," he said. "Do not negotiate or barter with your child," he said. "Don't give in."
If there just doesn't seem to be enough time in the day to get the necessary sleep and take part in all the activities the child or family believes are necessary, it may be time to re-evaluate the extracurriculars, he said.
"There's not an option to have them do everything and also get enough sleep."
For those who still can't fall asleep, Dr. Towery recommended meditating at night and regular physical exercise. A visit to a sleep lab or sleep specialist might also be needed, he said.
Hitting a rare somber note, Dr. Towery warned that "this is life and death here for some of you."
"I'd much rather have your child be alive and not get into Harvard than kill themself," he said.
A parent asked Dr. Towery why anxiety has become so common. "Anxiety is part of being a human and being a primate," he said. "It can save your life ... if something is truly a threat to your survival, it can keep you alive."
"The problem is that we over-read situations and our teens think getting a 'C' on a chemistry test means homelessness, life is over," he said.
"Our brains have a negativity bias, where we're on the lookout for things that can kill us," he said. "Most of us in this room have enough water, we're not going to die of thirst," he said. "No saber-toothed tigers in Menlo Park."
His website is JacobToweryMD.com.
At mpcsdspeakerseries.com/videos, see a video of the talk.