Teens Are in a Mental Health Crisis—Here's How Parents Can Help
It's been a long two years. A hard two years, and many are burnt out. The pandemic has affected millions, including teens and young adults. Children from age 8 to 18 have felt (and continue to feel) the effects of COVID-19. And while many have been impacted by the virus, physically speaking, the pandemic is taking another toll. According to a 2021 U.S. Surgeon General's report, young people are facing a mental health crisis, one which will have "devastating" effects.
"Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide—and rates have increased over the past decade," Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in the report.
"The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating," he added. "The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation."
Of course, for many, this information is unsurprising. After enduring more than two years of rolling shutdowns, lockdowns, isolation, fear, sickness, grief, loss, and uncertainty, the children are (undoubtedly) not alright.
"The pandemic is having detrimental effects on teen and pre-teen health," says Brandy Porche, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health in Dallas, Texas. Teens are acting up, or shutting down. Withdrawal is a common symptom of mental distress, as are dropping grades, and becoming more argumentative. Even before COVID-19 hit the United States, teen suicide rates were near an all-time high. The rate of suicide among those aged 10 to 24 increased almost 60 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to a 2020 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while post-pandemic stats have yet to be released, the experts agree: We are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
"Young people have endured so much throughout this pandemic, and while much of the attention is often placed on its physical health consequences, we cannot overlook the escalating mental health crisis facing our patients," Lee Savio Beers, M.D., the American Academy of Pediatrics' president, said in a statement.
"We cannot sit idly by," adds American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) President Gabrielle A. Carlson, M.D. "This is a national emergency, and the time for swift and deliberate action is now."
But what can we do? How can we support our children—and improve their mental well-being? Here's everything you need to know about teen mental health and suicide prevention.
How to Talk to Your Teen About Mental Health
While discussing and prioritizing mental health is important, broaching the topic can be hard. Many teens do not want to talk about their thoughts—let alone their feelings—and this can make sensitive conversations tough. Scratch that: It can make them seem impossible. But having an open line of communication is essential.
"It's important that parents talk openly and regularly about mental health with their teens and take a proactive stance," says Christine Yu Moutier, M.D., chief medical officer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Here are a few ways to start the conversation.
- Ask your child how they're doing, and what's happening in their world. This can be as simple as asking, "Are you OK?"
- Listen intently and without judgment. While you may hear things that make you uncomfortable, you can (and should) offer judgment-free support. "Because there is often stigma attached to mental health conditions, children can feel ashamed to talk about their worries, obsessions, compulsions, impulsivity, and other behavioral problems," an article by the National Alliance on Mental Illness states. "Talk with them about what they are experiencing. Listen with curiosity and empathize with them." And avoid statements which are full of shame and blame.
- Learn. Try to understand where your child is coming from and what they may be going through. Educate yourself about the impact of bullying, isolation, stress, and grief and familiarize yourself with common mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression.
- Acknowledge their frustrations, feelings, and fears. Do not minimize your child's emotions or life experiences. Remember, a little validation goes a long way.
- Follow their cues. Say things like, "Tell me more about that. I'd love to understand more about what that's like for you. When he said that/did that to you, how did that make you feel?" These statements let them know you are listening while placing the power in their hands.
Finally, remember that it's important to be patient.
"If your child isn't ready to talk, leave the invitation open," adds Dr. Yu Moutier. "Say something like 'Whenever you want to talk, I'm here to listen and support you.' Or 'I won't judge, and I'll never stop supporting you, no matter what challenges you face.' The likelihood that your child will open up when you least expect it, whether it's sitting side-by-side rather than face-to-face, in the car or engaged in some other activity together, is high."
How to Talk to Your Teen About Suicide
Most children have been exposed to suicide—whether they've seen the subject on TV, had a person close to them struggle with it (or die by it), and/or have experienced suicidal thoughts themselves. According to the 2019 Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, 18.8 percent of high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide, with 8.9 percent acting on these thoughts. What's more, mental health emergencies in teens are on the rise. A 2020 report found a 31 percent increase in ER visits. As such, it is imperative you talk to your teen about suicide in an honest, direct, and open way.
"If your child is talking about any level of distress, don't be afraid to ask whether they're feeling changes in their mood or level of stress, or having thoughts of suicide," says Dr. Yu Motier. "Asking your child directly about suicide will not increase their risk, or plant the idea. Rather, it will create an opportunity to offer support, and let them know you care enough to have the conversation."
Ask your teen what they know about suicide. Gather information, present facts, and dispel any myths they may have heard. Answer questions they may have without shame, judgment, or fear. Validate their feelings. Say things like "That must be hard" or "I'm sorry you're dealing with that. What can I do to support you?" You may also want to help adolescents come up with a plan of what they'll say or do if the topic of suicide comes up in their social circles, says Alicia Raimundo, a mental health advocate and project manager at Foundry, an online health and wellness resource for teens and young adults aged 12 to 24. Because chances are the subject will.
What You Should Do If Your Teen Seems—or Says They Are—Suicidal
While all mental health matters should be taken seriously, you should handle thoughts of suicide with the utmost care. "If your teen says that they are suicidal, take it very seriously," says Porche, the licensed counselor. "Don't try to 'love them' out of it. Do not take it upon yourself to counsel them, and do not dismiss their thoughts or feelings."
"Any child experiencing suicidal thoughts needs professional help," Porche adds. "Contact a mental health professional immediately and/or take them for an assessment at an inpatient facility. This doesn't mean that they will be admitted, but it is best to allow a trained professional to determine suicidality."
Warning signs that someone may be at immediate risk for attempting suicide
- Talking about wanting to die and/or wanting to kill themselves
- Talking about feeling empty or hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or feeling that there are no solutions
- Being preoccupied with death, in conversation, writing, drawing, or music
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Giving away personal possessions
- Saying goodbye to family and friends
- Increased or unnecessary risk-taking, particularly in activities which could lead to death, like drinking, drugging, or driving extremely fast
- Increased substance use/abuse
- Extreme mood swings
Resources for Suicidal Teens
Suicide may be the second leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 10 to 24 but it doesn't have to be. There is another way "out"—there is hope.
Below are some resources, particularly for suicidal teens:
- Crisis Text Line: Free and completely confidential, Crisis Text Line offers SMS mental health services to anyone "in crisis." Simply text "HOME" to 741-741 to connect with a trained counselor.
- notOK App: Are you hurting? Struggling? Perhaps you're having a hard time reaching out? Download the notOK app now to let others know you need support—via text, phone call, or GPS location.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Free and accessible 24/7, this service is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call 1-800-273-8255.
- The Trevor Project: Founded in 1998 for LGBTQ+ youth, The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention services to those aged 25 and under. Call the TrevorLifeline at 866-488-7386 for immediate support.
Resources for Suicide Attempt Survivors
After a suicide attempt, you may be unsure how you feel. Anger, grief, happiness, sadness, joy, shame, and guilt are all common—and completely normal—reactions, for survivors and their parents. But no matter what, know your feelings are not bad, they are not wrong, and you are not alone. There is help and hope.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): NAMI is an educational, advocacy organization focused on mental health. The group has numerous resources for suicide prevention and offers both support groups and a helpline, which suicide attempt survivors can access Monday through Friday, from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
- Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE): SAVE offers peer support services to help you connect with others who understand what you're going through.
- The Jed Foundation: Specifically designed for teens and young adults, The Jed Foundation provides educational resources for many mental health challenges. They also offer tips and resources for managing your own mental health and/or supporting a friend.
- United Suicide Survivors International: United Suicide Survivors Internaitional connects people who have experienced suicide loss, survived suicide attempts, and/or suicidal thoughts or feelings with like-minded individuals and peers.
Resources for Survivors of Suicide Loss
If you know or love someone who has died by suicide, you know how difficult navigating "life after" can be. The loss is profound, and the act comes with a lot of complicated emotions. But you are not alone. There is help and support. Below are some helpful resources for suicide loss survivors.
- Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors: Created by survivors for survivors, Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors provides online support and other services for people who are coping with suicide loss.
- Friends for Survival: For suicide loss survivors and professionals who work with them Friends for Survival has a monthly newsletter and runs a Suicide Loss Helpline, 1-800-646-7322.
- Parents of Suicides and Friends & Families of Suicides: This website provides a public message board/form, a listserv for parents, a separate listserv for others, and an online chat room for survivors of suicide loss.
- Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: Designed specifically for people grieving the loss of a loved one who died while serving the U.S. armed forces, this organization provides special resources and programs for suicide loss survivors.
- United Survivors: A space and place where people who have experienced suicide loss, suicide attempts, and/or suicidal thoughts and feelings can connect to use their lived experience to advocate for policy, systems, and cultural change.