During a recent “community open house” visit to my local children’s hospital, I was observing the head nurse as she called shots on admissions, staffing, and movement of patients throughout the day. I watched along as her computer screen showed brightly colored rows each tracking a current patient, identified only by their ages and reasons for admission. As new lines popped up on the screen, I observed what you might expect at a children’s hospital in the middle of the day: high fevers, asthma attacks, the occasional fractured bone. What I did not expect to see, and what came up time and again during the two hours I was observing, were little red lines for children ranging from 10-17 years old who had tried to kill themselves or expressed an interest in doing so. After the third such red line appeared on the nurse’s screen, I asked if it was unusual to see three such patients in a single afternoon. Her answer gave me a shudder, “it’s actually slower than we’ve seen lately”. When I responded with surprise, she explained that the hospital’s 24-bed Child and Adolescent Psychiatry unit was full to capacity at all times with children who had tried to harm themselves in one way or another and were receiving inpatient treatment. The nurse then went on to explain that this was the “new norm”, and that it’s worse than she had ever seen in her 25 years at the hospital.
While this anecdote only gives the perspective of one nurse at one hospital, a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) backs up the claim that suicide attempts are up significantly in all sectors, particularly among teenagers where rates have been surging since 2007. The suicide rate among teen girls reached a 40-year high in 2015, according to CDC statistics.
Some have argued that an overall decline in mental health can be attributed to the rise in use of electronic devices (in 2007, we witnessed the birth of many things tech including the first widely available “smartphone”) leading to social isolation. Others worry the use of social media has allowed school bullies to target their victims even in the places they once felt safe, at home and inside the classroom. Still others believe that the medical community itself is to blame and that the medical response to teen depression (namely selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) is making the problem worse; these antidepressants lead some teens and young adults to experience an increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior. The likelihood is that all of these concerns have some degree of merit, the question is why we aren’t having a more productive conversation about the problem.
Despite the grim statistics, we know that teen suicide is preventable. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 90 percent of people who die by suicide have risk factors that include substance use disorder or other mental health disorders, including depression. If we become better at identifying risk and recognizing warning signs, we can develop a culture of early intervention to help save lives.
One nonprofit leading the way to help normalize mental health issues is Screening for Mental Health, a Boston-based organization that offers simple and anonymous screening tools available online and through easy-to-use “MindKare” kiosks set up in schools, community health centers, and other public spaces. If a user tests positive for mental health risk factors, they are recommended to a professional for a more thorough screening and possible treatment. The screening system also allows users to answer questions regarding someone else who they might be concerned about. Based on observations of a friend or family member’s behavior, the assessment tool can help someone identify risk factors and recommend options to help them get treatment. One of Screening for Mental Health’s programs “Stop a Suicide Today“, helps people understand how they can intervene with a friend or loved one who might be considering suicide. The goal of this prevention program is to stress the importance of early intervention as a key step to reducing suicides.
No one struggling with depression or other mental health concerns should have to deal with their troubles alone; programs like those offered by Screening for Mental Health can provide access to simple and effective tools to help amplify that message for all to hear.