Recent national news stories have reported a startling upward trend in mental health struggles, especially among school-age kids over the last 12 months. The challenges can result in drug use, verbal and physical abuse, or suicidal ideation.
In a recent study conducted by JAMA Psychiatry, the authors compared mid-March through October 2020 to the same period in 2019. They found the median rates of ER visits for mental health conditions, suicide attempts, drug and opioid overdoses, and child abuse and neglect were significantly higher during the pandemic.
In Tennessee, Youth Villages’ Specialized Crisis Services, a leader in mental health services for children and families, has experienced a decrease in call volume, most likely because children are not in school where a lot of calls are initiated by concerned teachers and coaches. However, the level of severity of the calls is trending higher during the pandemic, especially an increase in calls related to suicidal ideation and/or attempt.
Our kids are facing the same stressors as adults. Fear of contracting COVID-19 or fear of not knowing if and when things will return to normal are all “normal” fears right now. And, just like adults, kids need human interaction within social circles, and these limitations can impact their coping skills.
Regularly look at your child’s behavior and make sure they are doing regular activities like showering, dressing for the day and eating meals, as well as trying to keep a regular daily routine. Personal hygiene, or lack thereof, is a major red flag for depression and suicidal thoughts among teens.
Setting an example to maintain some sense of normality is also helpful. Encourage them to go outside daily and get some fresh air. If things seem “off,” start asking questions. Make sit-down dinners, a walk or game night a regular part of the family’s weekly schedule as a time to foster conversations and open discussions. Previously, a lot of those conversations happened in the car during school drop-offs and pick-ups, so even consider taking a car ride with your kids to facilitate these conversations. By giving your kids a safe space to open up, they might express their emotions, fears and concerns more freely.
Questions to ask can include: “What are you thinking about?”, “What worries you?”, and if there is a real concern, ask your child directly, “Are you thinking about suicide?” Additionally, getting a young person who is experiencing suicidality excited about upcoming events ca help them see the future, beyond their suicidal thoughts.
The concern is not just for parents. If you’re a teacher or around youth in any capacity, check in with your students, even if it’s via remote learning or messaging. Home is not always the safest and best option for some children and neglect and abuse have been more prevalent during this time but under-reported. If you notice something that seems off, engage in further conversation or give crisis services a call at 1-855-CRISIS-1.
If you think your kids need help, consult with your child’s pediatrician for a mental health referral. If you believe your child is experiencing a crisis, seek help immediately.
For help for children and youth up to age 18, call the Tennessee Statewide Crisis Hotline:
Crisis TextLine – Text “TN” to 741741
If you are located in another state outside of Tennessee, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK or (1-800-273-8255)
Brittany Farrar is the regional director of Middle Tennessee programs and Tennessee Specialized Crisis Services for Youth Villages. Crisis services are still available 24/7 if your child needs support. Youth Villages is available and prepared to assist your family during this time. Call 855-CRISIS-1 or text CONNECT to 741741. If you have thoughts of suicide, contact 1-800-273-TALK to be connected to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. For resources on coping with mental health struggles during COVID-19, visit Suicide Prevention Lifeline.