Our family knows a lot about mental illness, especially the risk of suicide. This is how we lost our son.
Americans have become more aware of mental health issues than ever before. This led the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend screening all children 12 and older for depression and suicide risk.
These conditions have reached unprecedented levels. Last year, amid the pandemic, youth mental health was declared a “national emergency” by a coalition representing more than 77,000 doctors and more than 200 children’s hospitals.
Additionally, the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, issued a 53-page review warning of a growing mental health crisis among young people. The The CDC also released a 2022 report revealing a deteriorating mental health climate, claiming that 21% of adolescents experienced a major depressive episode before the pandemic, and 9% of children and adolescents experienced anxiety problems. The pandemic has only exacerbated these problems.
In response to this growing crisis, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a draft recommendation urging pediatricians to help screen for mental health issues such as major depressive disorder and anxiety. They are also now proposing that all adolescents be screened for suicide risk.
It is heartening to learn that Kaiser Permanente is providing a $125,000 grant over two years to the Boulder Valley School District to address mental health issues among teachers, staff, students and their families.
But what can we do as a community of parents and caregivers who play one of the most critical roles in a child’s life? How to spot the signs of depression or suicide? What can we do to help our child if he is in trouble?
Bring in pediatricians to help
Pediatricians are now seen as another line of defense in tackling the youth mental health crisis. In conjunction with the American Task Force on Preventive Services, the AAP offers to screen all adolescents 12 and older for major depressive disorder and youth 8 and older for anxiety, even if they do not show no symptoms.
Additionally, the AAP recommends universal screening of all children 12 and older for suicide risk — and screening of those eight to 11 when clinically indicated.
Routine screening is one way to reduce the suicide rate among young people. However, primary care providers must also have the tools and resources to connect young people to quality mental health care when they test positive for suicide risk.
While these proposed screening measures may be helpful, research has proven that one of the greatest protective factors against mental health issues and suicide is a strong bond with primary caregivers. However, in today’s complicated landscape, it has become harder than ever for parents to know what signs to look for to detect depression or suicide.
Signs of depression and suicide in children and adolescents
According to the Cleveland Clinic, depression is a mood disorder that can cause children (and adults) to feel sad, irritable, or hopeless. It can affect sleep, appetite, or relationships with others. Depression can also cause people to lose interest in hobbies or activities they once enjoyed. In severe cases, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts.
Diagnosing depression in young people can be difficult, as this is a developmental period marked by rapid change and lagging verbal ability. For this reason, outpatient providers often look to behavioral patterns to diagnose depression.
Below is a checklist often used to diagnose depression. If you can answer “yes” to more than two of these questions, and the child’s symptoms persist most days of the week for at least two weeks, he is likely to have depression that may warrant a professional opinion.
- Are they sad or irritable most of the day?
- Have they lost interest in the things they really enjoyed? Or a significant decrease in energy and lack of motivation to do anything?
- Have their eating or sleeping habits changed?
- Do they feel worthless, hopeless about their future, or guilty for things that aren’t their fault?
- Have they had suicidal thoughts?
How to best support a child in difficulty
Relate: One of the best ways to help a child is to find authentic ways to connect with them. We don’t always have to ask 20 questions when we’re with our kids. Sometimes all it takes is getting in a car and playing a favorite song or taking the dog for a walk.
Listen: Parents often feel like they have to have all the answers. But in reality, children just want to be heard and understood. We don’t always have to try to improve their mood. By saying things like, “It’s going to be okay” or “It’s not that bad,” we actually stifle their ability to access their negative feelings and prevent them from processing those difficult emotions. When we say things like “it sounds like you’re having a rough day” or “I’m sorry you felt so bad,” it validates their emotions and creates a safe space for them.
There is a stigma around struggles with depression and/or anxiety. But it is important to accept the help of an independent medical professional.
The take-out sale
If your child or someone you know is suicidal, it is essential that they are assessed by a mental health professional or taken to the nearest emergency room. Additional resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). But also, starting July 16, people across the country can call 988 — the mental health version of 911 — to reach the lifeline.
Investing in mental health resources is vital for America and can improve the lives of many people, especially the rising tide of struggling young people.
Show me the physical and mental health of a country and I’ll show you its future.
Jim Martin is at [email protected] He and his daughter, Sarah Martin Pool, MA, LPC, NCC, are co-authors.