MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS: Awareness as prevention

By Jeannine Hatt
Special to the Herald Democrat

All of us have been impacted by the stress and isolation of this past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and our youth have not been spared the negative emotional effects. In a recent study involving 526 youth, 12% surveyed stated they thought of suicide often and 6% said ‘all the time’. Several Texoma area pediatricians have reported seeing significantly more depression, anxiety and thoughts of self-harm among youth in the past year.

Teenagers can, at times, be very emotional, if not dramatic, making statements to parents that might be brushed off as melodrama. It can be common, at these emotional times, to ignore statements such as “I’d be better off dead”, “Don’t worry about me, I won’t be around much longer”, or “Nothing matters. Suicide is now the second most common cause of death among young people between ages 10-24, so it is still very important that parents remain vigilant and aware. Aware of what can be increasing depression and/or a move toward thoughts of suicide.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that parents work toward being empathetic and attentive to our teen’s behavior and to work on keeping communication lines open. These lines of communication can help us be aware of Mental Health Red Flags. Here are six red flags to be aware of: Excessive sleeping, beyond usual teenage fatigue or insomnia, Loss of self-esteem, Loss of interest in favorite pastimes, Unexpected and dramatic decline in academic performance, Changes in eating behaviors and Personality shifts or changes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also suggests that parents be aware of these identified risk factors:

1. Previous suicide attempts which is strongly tied to a future suicide. Non-suicidal self-harm, such as cutting, also puts kids at higher risk for suicide within the following year.

2. Family history: Studies show that suicide by one family member increases the risk of suicide among others within the family as do ongoing family conflicts, parents' mental health problems, and loss, such as death of a loved one.

3. Sexual orientation: Many adolescents who take their own lives are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender or questioning their gender identity (LGBTQ), especially those who experienced negative reactions or rejection to the "coming out" process.

4. Depression: As many as 1 in 5 teens experience depression at some point during adolescence, putting them at increased risk for suicide. Symptoms of depression sometimes are obvious, but some kids are good at hiding their feelings or don't know how to share them. To help identify these teens, pediatricians screen for depression at all checkups starting at age 12 yrs.

5. Use of alcohol and other drugs: Substance use is a factor in roughly 1 in 3 youth suicides. Access to drugs can give teens an easy way to intentionally overdose and use of alcohol and drugs can increase depression.

6. Local epidemics of suicide: Suicide can sometimes be contagious. Parents should pay extra attention to how a peer's suicide affects their children and talk openly about the situation, pointing out that the victim probably didn't realize how many people cared about them and that resources are available to help.

7. Access to guns: Firearms are the top cause of death for teens age 15-19 who commit suicide. Even when guns are locked up, studies show that teens who live in homes with firearms are more likely to kill themselves than those in homes without guns.

8. Bullying and Cyberbullying: Children who are bullied―and those who bully others―are at higher risk of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Immediate resources would include a family doctor, pediatrician or school counselor. Specific local connections can be found at the Texoma Community Center and the Child and Family Guidance Center. It is very important for parents, and all adults, to know the risk factors and signs of depression so that teens and children can be connected with help sooner than later.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (273-8255). It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from anywhere in the United States.

Jeanine Hatt

Dr Jeannine Hatt is a pediatrician who has served the children of Texomaland since 1980 and is affiliated with TexomaCare Pediatrics and on staff at Texoma Medical Center. She is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and supports the work and policies they promote in the US and globally.