By Rochelle Fritz, PhD and James Yon, MD
Department of Behavioral Health
Mental health issues among America’s youth were already on the rise before the COVID-19 pandemic began to cause increased disruption in our lives. The response to the pandemic including school closings, social isolation, and other approaches has only worsened the mental health problems among our youth, putting them at greater risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviors. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds – a shocking statistic.
With so many young people struggling, it’s crucial for parents and other caring adults to know how to spot the signs of mental health problems and heightened suicide risk before it’s too late. Creating opportunities for honest and open dialogue with young people who may be suffering in silence is also very important.
Breaking down barriers is the key to getting help
The stigma surrounding mental health and suicide makes many of us feel uncomfortable or awkward discussing it, and often prevents young people from asking for help. However, it is critical that parents and other caregivers not allow discomfort or pre-conceived notions about mental illness to stand in the way of being proactive if they sense their child is struggling.
Indeed, the majority of children and adolescents who attempt suicide have an unrecognized mental health challenge according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The largest among these are depression, anxiety, childhood trauma and eating disorders. All of these challenges can put youth at risk for suicide if they are not addressed with treatment.
Some parents and others think that talking about suicide is more likely to make it happen but that is a myth. Talking about suicide and mental health issues can actually help break down the stigma, which can make people feel more comfortable reaching out for help when they need it.
Signs to watch for
People who are at risk for suicide, no matter what their age, usually exhibit the same signs and symptoms:
- Talking about wanting to die or being a burden to others
- Using more drugs and alcohol
- Sleep more or less than usual
- Withdrawing from people and activities they enjoy
- Having extreme mood swings or being agitated
- Show rage or behave recklessly
What to Do in a Crisis
If you or someone you know has thoughts about suicide, it’s important not to delay and seek help right away.
Dialing 988 on your phone will connect you with the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This Lifeline is available 24/7 and offers free, confidential emotional support to people having thoughts of suicide or experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. You can also text 988 to receive a short survey so the Crisis Center can better understand what you or a loved one are going through and then be connected with a counselor. A chat feature is also available at 988lifeline.org. You can learn more about how the 988 Lifeline works here.
Since it can be difficult to talk to children and adolescents about mental health, you may benefit from these free “Conversation Starters” cards that are designed to make it easier for parents and caregivers to communicate with young people about mental health issues. These conversations can help you recognize when a young person is struggling so you can take steps to get them appropriate support.
You can also talk to your family doctor or pediatrician for a referral to our Behavioral Health department, or inquire if your child’s school has onsite resources, such as a licensed mental health counselor. In addition, you can access Youth Mobile Crisis at 1-877-382-1609 in Massachusetts 24/7, 365 days a year. If your child has taken steps to end their life and is in immediate need of help, call 911 or bring them to the nearest Emergency Department. Taking action if a family member experiences mental health problems could save a life.