St. Louis area students returned to in-person learning back in August with a spotlight on teen mental health and suicide that emerged in a post-pandemic era.
Now, some are faced with trauma from the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School shooting. The shooting left a student and teacher dead and several others injured on Oct. 24. The shooter, 19-year-old Orlando Harris, was killed by police within minutes of getting the call.
Teen mental health:
School shootings impact on child emotional state
Dr. Catherine Pike is a pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children’s hospital who works with children who are exhibiting mental health concerns related to anxiety, depression and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In the wake of the mass shooting at CVPA high school, Dr. Pike said families are encouraged to monitor their child’s emotional state in the coming days and weeks.
Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Some children may show slight changes in behavior, sleep habits and appetite.
For most children, this will ease with reassurance and time, she said. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions.
Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss and suffer from depression or other mental illnesses may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others.
If concerns persist or worsen, then parents should seek the help of a mental health professional and contact their child’s primary care physician, she said.
Parents can validate how scary these events are to learn and talk about and provide reassurance about their child’s safety.
She also said that depending on your child’s concerns and developmental level, this may be an excellent time to review safety procedures at home and school.
She said that a school is a safe place. Students can trust their teachers to keep them as safe as possible.
Dr. Pike said we know that mental health problems can broadly cause significant disruption in daily-life functioning, including at school or other academic settings.
“Some of my patients will describe difficulty regularly attending school,” Pike said. “On the milder side, some of my patients said they have difficulties focusing which can impact their learning and performance.”
Pike said some of her patients often say that their teachers or other school professionals may not understand some of the stressors that they’re experiencing.
“Clearly, if these aren’t visible…like much of mental health problems can be…invisible…and so having a hard time advocating for oneself in the school setting is a common theme that gets brought up,” Pike said.
Pike said that considering the pandemic is essential.
“We can expect to see some pretty significant changes…physical, behavioral, social changes in kids during that time,” Pike said. “But there are other changes that are not considered normative for certain age groups.”
Concerns are not new:
Increase in at-risk Black and brown youth
Annie Hobson is the senior manager for K-12 student leadership at Active Minds, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that supports mental health awareness and education for young adults.
She said her team works with others all over the country to help youth feel empowered in the mental health realm.
Hobson, who has a background in social work and is based in Illinois, said she focuses on at-risk and Black and brown youth.
Hobson said she had seen an increase in mental health concerns among the Black, Indigenous, and people of color or BIPOC community.
“I’ve seen an actual increase…and here’s the thing…these babies were already talking about this,” Hobson said.
Hobson said that some adults aren’t listening to things teens have already been voicing. She also said the impact of mental health difficulties just appeared different.
Some states, such as Illinois, have started offering students time off of school in the form of a mental health day policy.
Mental health day policy:
The need for time off to cope
Ipsos conducted a 2022 Poll of Teen Mental Health from Teens Themselves on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). They found that most teens are comfortable talking about mental health but often don’t start the conversation.
They also want schools to play a significant role in their mental health, and they trust the information they get there but feel like schools are not doing enough, according to the NAMI.
The poll found that 64% of teens feel the world is more stressful now than when their parents were their age.
One in six report experiencing negative emotions all the time or often, the poll reported. Girls are more likely to say they are anxious or stressed out repeatedly or all the time.
One in for has been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
The poll also found that 28% of teens reported receiving mental health treatment. Some boys are likelier to say they don’t need mental health treatment.
The poll found that 65% of teens said they feel comfortable discussing their mental health with those closest to them.
But, only 48% talk regularly with parents about their mental health, and only 22% speak periodically with friends.
According to the poll, teens want schools to play a significant role in their mental health and trust the information they get there.
Two in three agree that schools should teach about what mental health is, including where and how to seek treatment
Four in five who seek mental health information from teachers say they trust their teachers and other adults at their school to provide it
67% think schools should offer days off for mental health
In addition, teens don’t think their schools are doing enough.
Dr. Michael Brown, with St. Louis Public Schools, said the community does not have mental health days as a policy but it is a discussion that is currently happening with their superintendent.
Brown said the school prepares a year in advance, so as we look ahead to the 2023-24 school year, a mental health day policy is a part of the discussion.
Brown said a district-wide mental health program started this year in response to the effects of the pandemic. This year’s phase one focused on health and wellness designed after meeting with students and staff alike.
Right now, the district is doing a lot with suicide awareness.
“All of our social workers and counselors have been trained and they, in turn, train all of our teachers,” Brown said.
Brown said the district is partnering with some community partners and will have suicide awareness for everyone in fifth through ninth grade.
Brown said every fifth, seventh, or eighth grader would receive suicide awareness sessions within their school.
Several factors become overwhelming
Phyllis Blackwelder, an area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Missouri (AFSP), said there is never one single reason for someone dying by suicide.
“It’s pretty much many different factors that kind of converge on each other and it becomes way too overwhelming for the individual,” Blackwelder said.
Some factors include diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health conditions, a series of physical health conditions or a traumatic brain injury.
“Then, you have your environmental factors,” Blackwelder said. “Your prolonged stress — such as harassment, bullying, or your relationships — stressful life — whether it’s a recent divorce or death in the family — job loss,” Blackwelder said.
Blackwelder also said that if the person gets exposed to someone who died by suicide within those environmental factors.
“Then, you have your historical factors when maybe you made a previous attempt or you have a family history of suicide, childhood abuse, negligence or trauma. Sex trafficked,” Blackwelder said.
Blackwelder said that when all of those converge, it can become too much.
“People always say, ‘I had no idea, he didn’t see any signs,’” Blackwelder said.
She said that during the pandemic, teens experienced being forced to do online schooling or not seeing their friends with social media in their faces all the time. She said school closures, online learning, and COVID-related death could all be factors in why a teen may start to have suicidal thoughts.
“Maybe they may have had a mental illness that didn’t surface until they were forced to online schooling and isolation from others because everybody couldn’t be around anybody,” Blackwelder said. “We just don’t know.”
The AFSP has developed “Talk Saves Lives: An Introduction to Suicide Prevention,” a community-based education presentation that provides participants with the scope of the problem of suicide, key research findings, including risk factors and warning signs for suicide, and recommendations for the role we can all play in suicide prevention.
The event will be held on Nov. 16 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Pavilion at Lemay in Jefferson Barracks National Park located at 305 Gregg Road Lemay, MO 63125.
To register for the event, click here.
If you or someone you know requires assistance, call 988 or use the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is dedicated to saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide, including those who have experienced a loss. If you are worried about someone, then access information on how to talk to someone who may be struggling with their mental health.
Kids Under Twenty One is the only hotline in St. Louis staffed by trained youth volunteers. Call 314-644-5886 in the local calling area. This is not a 24-hour service.
National Alliance on Mental Illness services include family-to-family education, support groups, lending library and more. Offices are located in Brentwood with phone number 314-962-4670 and St. Charles with phone number 636-940-7440.
Community Psychological Services provides affordable psychological evaluation and counseling services for children, adults, couples, and families. You can visit the UM-St. Louis campus in Stadler Hall or call 314-516-5824.