The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for families in various ways. For many young people, school was disrupted, friendships were paused and the activities that typically drove connection and community were upended. Although many children displayed resilience and creativity in managing isolation and the many limitations posed by this novel virus, many others struggled to cope effectively and navigate the chronic stress.
A year after the pandemic began, many kids are still learning from home, distanced from friends and classmates for at least some of the time. Those who have resumed in-person schooling may still be missing other social outlets, including sports, clubs, social gatherings and milestone celebrations.
Notably, the pandemic was not the only major factor affecting our children this past year: They also witnessed political unrest and repeated episodes of racial injustice. Countless families experienced increased financial stress and conflict at home. While research is limited as to what has caused mental health changes, data points to a meaningful increase in rates of youth anxiety, depression and emotional health problems during the pandemic. Many health care settings have reported that they are treating more young people for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, which was already the second leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 19 prior to the pandemic.
As parents, it’s important to know suicide warning signs, so that you can get your child help in a timely and compassionate way. We know that suicide does not discriminate. We also know that the best strategies we have to reduce risk are the most straightforward: pay attention to shifts in mood and behavior, engage in challenging conversations when those changes occur and enlist the support of health care or mental health professionals.
While anyone can struggle with their mental health and suicidal thoughts, males are at greater risk of suicide, as are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and LGBTQ+ children and teens. Warning signs such as the following may indicate that a youth is struggling with their mental health, and may need further evaluation and support from a mental health professional:
— Feeling sad or irritable more often.
— Sleeping or eating more or less than usual.
— Showing little to no interest in pleasurable activities.
— Withdrawing from others.
— Engaging in reckless behavior that is out of character.
— Self-harm such as cutting or injuring oneself on purpose.
— Increased use of alcohol or drugs.
— Talking about death or dying often.
— Expressing they are a burden or that they have no value.
Although it can be challenging, it is essential that parents start a direct conversation with their child if they have concerns about possible suicidal thoughts or struggles with mental health. Parents should not wait for a crisis — talking about suicide or mental health issues early, often and when things are going well can help a child open up about what they are feeling. By asking a child directly about suicide, parents can provide a sense of relief and a safe space to express emotions, which can lead to healing and helpful treatment as needed. A direct conversation about suicide is a conversation that does save lives.
If parents learn their child has thought about suicide, the child’s pediatrician can be a good first connection point on the journey to seeking appropriate therapy and treatment. Despite challenges in setting up in-person appointments during the pandemic, research is clear that telehealth visits for mental health difficulties is often accessible and works well for most concerns. Telehealth visits are effective and they allow a therapist to see your child in their usual environment.
There are a range of benefits to reaching out to a mental health professional, and ideally it should be done prior to a crisis. Counseling can help your child recognize that their life may have changed during the pandemic — but it didn’t end, and there are still ways to connect, learn and grow even in less than ideal circumstances.
Families can also collaborate with a mental health professional to create an action plan that can help the family and the child identify helpful tools in case of a crisis, including:
— Warning signs of suicidal thoughts.
— Coping strategies for intense or overwhelming feelings.
— Trustworthy people who can help in a crisis.
— Useful distractions, like calling a friend, and ways to avoid unhealthy distractions.
— Reasons for living or activities that used to bring joy; families could create a “hope box” with photos, inspirational quotes and other reminders of their reasons to live.
— Safe storage and/or removal of items that your child can use to cause harm to him or herself.
Whether you are a parent, teacher or caregiver, talking with kids about their feelings are some of the most important conversations you can have. Starting conversations early and establishing trust are key to helping a child live a happier and healthier life. Families can find tips and resources on ways to start the conversation about mental health at OnOurSleeves.org.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For LGBTQ+ youth, call the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386, or text 678-678. Trained crisis counselors are standing by to help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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