Recent studies show the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating effect on suicide rates among youth in the United States. A study in the journal Pediatrics showed youth suicides increased during COVID-19, with significantly more suicides than expected among males, non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaskan Native and Black youth. A study in the Journal of Medical Toxicology found suspected suicides and suicide attempts increased by 4.5% among 6- to 19-year-olds from March 2020 through February 2021.
But these trends have not improved as the pandemic has receded. For most of us, the outward signs of the pandemic — masking, remote learning, social distancing and cancelled events — are in the rear view. But children’s mental health has not rebounded at the same rate as our social calendars.
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According to the Children’s Hospital Association’s Pediatric Health Information System, mental health cases discharged from the emergency department were 20% higher in 2022 than in 2019.
These statistics are alarming, and it is easy to feel helpless in the face of them. As a parent, one of the worst feelings is to see your child suffering and not know how to help. The other worst feeling is to realize that your child has been struggling with their mental health but that they were really good at hiding it.
We know our kids need support and probably a therapist, although getting an appointment is a lot easier said than done. The national shortage of behavioral health providers is a challenge for families across the United States. You are not alone if you are feeling at a loss in the face of this troubling situation.
British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently published a review covering screening, risk assessment and intervention in suicidal youth. Importantly, the review includes evidence for factors that are protective against suicidal behavior. How these factors help protect against suicidal behavior is poorly understood. But many studies have shown the factors below are associated with a lower risk of suicidal behavior:
- ∙Family cohesion and support
- Increased access to mental health care
- Faith or spiritual factors
- Ability to adapt and change in response to your surroundings
- Emotional regulation
- Strong interpersonal relationships
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The researchers also identified strategies that are beneficial to all youth, regardless of their risk factors. These include:
- Fostering resilience: Kids build resilience through learning from mistakes, learning to identify and talk about emotions, setting goals and taking responsible risks and making connections with others.
- Increasing access to mental health care: This might seem like it’s a systems problem, and it is. But on an individual level, we can help by talking about and normalizing mental health, therapy and medication to break stigmas and by taking advantage of resources available to our families.
- Reducing access to lethal means: Keep medications and weapons locked and out of reach. Suicidal behavior is often impulsive. Making it harder to access lethal means increases the chances for intervention.
May is Mental Health Month. I hope you’ll take some time this week to take care of yourself and check in with your loved ones.
Abbie (Roth) Miller is the managing editor for Pediatrics Nationwide and manager for science and medical content at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.