After more than a year of surviving the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, the epidemic of suicide in children has risen dramatically. Last year alone, 7,000 teens in the U.S. have died by suicide.
A surprising 77% of those were boys; and across the U.S., hospitals saw a 24% to 31% increase in teen visits to the emergency department for mental health-related incidents. In Arizona, these issues are more common than the rest of the nation.
Problems with access to health care, economic struggles and the stigmas associated with mental illness and seeking support put teens at a higher risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. Knowing that the effects of COVID-19 can exacerbate these issues, there are a few things parents can do to check in on their children’s mental health.
Social support from family and community can help children cope with stressful situations. Actively listening to children and responding to their concerns can be a start. Let your children know that your home is a safe environment to be open and honest about any issues, not just mental health.
The conversations we have with children surrounding mental health often leave them feeling invalidated. For example, saying things like “tomorrow is a new day” or “it will be okay” can make children feel unheard and misunderstood. For children to feel respected during these tough conversations, show that you are actively listening by making eye contact and having curious body language.
Validate what your children are saying by letting them know you hear their concerns. You can also do this in a nonverbal way by rubbing their back or sitting next to them. If your child is slow to share their feelings with you, start by asking open-ended questions about what they are going through. Ask them how certain stressful events make them feel and ask them to describe why they think that way.
This can help put yourself in their perspective and cultivate an open and honest environment. When children can express their thoughts and emotions, that is the first step in letting go of them through coping mechanisms. One way you can do this is by taking a memory walk. Reflect on past positive or happy family moments to help them remember who they are and that they do belong.
Be willing to practice coping skills with your children to let them know they are not alone. Helping your children attach to healthy coping mechanisms can help them process their stress more effectively. Other forms of coping can include breathing techniques, exercise, writing a journal, taking a hot bath, and even learning a new skill.
This is not an exhaustive list of what you can do to help your child, but if these efforts fail, it may be time to seek professional help before it is too late. Using counseling services, taking parenting classes or reading self-development books with your children can be another great resource to help them cope during times of mental health crises.
Editor's note: Ed McClelland is vice president of community services for Southwest Behavioral & Health Services. Learn more at: www.sbhservices.org.