For many young people, the world seems to be crashing around them. It is a phenomenon years in the making but certainly accelerated by COVID-19, which created a climate of learning loss, decreased human interaction, and a scary lack of resilience. It is a perfect storm for anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and now is the time to learn about the warning signs of mental illness and suicidal ideation.
Trampling through the underbrush of data around the upward trajectory of youth mental disorders uncovers some interesting, and perhaps frightening, news.
Statistics on Suicide
The National Center for Health Statistics reports that stable or declining trends in suicide rates from 2000 to 2007 in several demographics reversed from 2007 to 2017 (Curtin and Heron, 2019):
- Ages 10–24 increased to 10.6 per 100,000
- Ages 10–14 nearly tripled to 2.5 per 100,000
- Ages 15–19 increased to 11.8 per 100,000
- Ages 20-24 increased to 17.0 per 100,000 between 2013 and 2017
Also alarming is news from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which revealed the following (NAMI, 2022).
- One in six youth ages 6 to 17 years experiences a mental health disorder each year.
- 50 percent of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34 years.
And then came the pandemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
To better understand the COVID-19 pandemic’s profound effect on the physical and mental well-being of children and teens, experts delve into the science, guided by near real-time data from emergency department (ED) visits. Scientists from CDC’s National Syndromic Surveillance Program, state and local health departments, and several federal agencies use these data to look for emerging health threats, including mental and behavioral health (CDC, 2022).
After examining the data, scientists found that although pediatric visits decreased overall, the weekly number of ED visits increased not only for certain injuries and some chronic diseases but also for behavioral health concerns, including self-harm, drug poisoning, and psychosocial concerns. Also among the findings is an overall increase for teenage girls of health concerns. Proportionally, eating disorders doubled and tic disorders more than tripled.
NAMI drills down on “The State of Suicide Today,” offering these sobering facts (Sassani, 2022):
- Suicide remains a leading cause of death.
- Cultural issues exacerbate the problem.
- Substance abuse is a key driver.
- Capacity is still a challenge in the behavioral health field.
- The stigma around mental health continues.
We also know that excessive screen time and social isolation contribute to downward spirals in mental health. In terms of moving forward, NAMI recommends that we treat suicide as the national public health crisis that it is, thereby removing the stigma.
Lack of Resilience
Another key indicator of declining mental health is a lack of resilience. Children of well-meaning parents who regularly “save” their child from consequences of their behavior may leave them feeling helpless and unable to cope with stress, challenge, and failure. Knowing the signs and offering help are crucial in addressing mental health and suicide (Sassani, 2022).
Prominent signs that a young person is deteriorating include changes in eating or sleeping schedules or patterns, giving away personal items, loss of interest in activities and relationships, and evidence of substance use.
At the proverbial end of the day, what we want most for our children is for them to feel prepared to move forward in life as capable young adults who can solve their own problems, take responsibility for their own actions, and learn how to reach out for help when they need it.
On that last point, it is critical that we talk with our kids about failure and emotional pain. That way, when predictable setbacks occur, they will know things will get better, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Many young people don’t know this and when faced with strife, they tend to think the way they are feeling is how they will always feel.
In fact, the JED Foundation says simply asking a child or teen if they have experienced thoughts of suicide is an important first step. Often adults are afraid to simply say the word suicide fearing that doing so may plant a thought that wasn’t there previously. It won’t. JED offers ways of bringing up the subject (JED, 2022).
- Pick a time and place for maximum privacy.
- Start by expressing your concern and desire to help.
- Keep the door open if they are not yet ready to talk about it.
- Stay calm if they say “yes.”
- Tell them you want to connect them to help.
- Don’t promise to keep what they tell you a secret.
- Get immediate help if they are unsafe.
The bottom line is when we do our best, our children will grow up to be confident and capable citizens of the world.
Sadly, we are not there yet.
CDC. (2022). Understanding the pandemic’s impact on children and teens. National Syndromic Surveillance Program (NSSP). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nssp/partners/Understanding-the-impact.html (17 Sept. 2022).
Curtin, S. and M. Heron. (2019). Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10-24: United States, 2000-2017. NCHS Data Brief. No. 352. October 2019. National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db352-h.pdf (17 Sept. 2022).
JED. (2022). How to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide. The Jed Foundation. https://jedfoundation.org/resource/how-to-ask-someone-if-theyre-thinkin… (17 Sept. 2022).
NAMI. (2022). Mental health by the numbers. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/mhstats (17 Sept. 2022).
Sassani, A. (2022). The state of suicide today – and ways to prevent it. National Alliance on Mental Illness. September 2, 2022. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2022/The-State-of-Suicid… (17 Sept. 2022).