Mental Health in a Pandemic

Mental Health in a Pandemic

It’s September. As I type this it’s unseasonably cool, a wonderful 57 degrees. I’m drinking coffee in my office after dropping my kids off at school. And yet, I’m reminded by the mask next to me and the empty building. I’m literally the only person here. That life is still not “normal.” Six months in, we are still walking the tight rope between returning to a sense of normalcy and living in a pandemic. There are no simple answers, and everyone is making decisions based on what they believe to be best for their unique situation. Opinions are strong and stress levels are high.

As schools are starting, online or in-person, we are starting to see at Teen Life the impacts that life in the past six months have had on our students – the ones that live in our homes, go to our schools, and the ones we interact with on a regular basis. And honestly, it makes me stop and think about what we need to do now. Allow me to explain.

Today, I ran across an article on NPR stating what schools and experts have all been thinking for the past 6 months. Per the article, early studies suggest that “teen and youth anxiety and depression are getting worse since COVID lockdowns began in March.” In fact, the initial data collected between March and June 2020 indicated that for youth age 18 to 24, that 1 in 4 had “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.” Let me say that again 1 in 4. 25%.

But let me take it a little bit closer to home for some of us. Texas. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram posted this article in 2019 which references the CDC’s Texas High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In 2019, 18.9% of Texas high school students surveyed indicated they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months prior to the survey. 15% of students made a plan and 10% had made a suicide attempt. An astounding 38.3% of high school students in Texas felt sad or hopeless. Every statistic listed above is higher than the national average.

One more step. Let’s talk Fort Worth. Data from the same survey indicated that in 2019, 14.8% of high school students in Fort Worth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months prior to the survey. 12.6% of Fort Worth students had made a plan and 11.1% reported a suicide attempt. 33.5% of Fort Worth high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless. 1 in 3.

Those local numbers – that was before COVID. Before students were cut off from peers and other positive adult influences. Before the average of students seriously considering suicide, which Texas is consistently above, were estimated to jump to almost 25%.

The NPR Article makes a few suggestions and I’d like to summarize and expound on them here.

  1. Watch for red flags – Be on the lookout for sadness that persists for days, for anger that is uncommon for the student, for comments about wanting to disappear or indicating that no one cares.
  2. Check in regularly – It seems easy, but often is challenging when everyone else is always around. Be willing to listen to their thoughts and feelings. Don’t be afraid to ask directly if your student is considering self-harm or suicide.
  3. Look for opportunities for your student to interact – Maybe it’s sports, maybe at a job, maybe they can volunteer, maybe it’s allowing them space to interact with a mentor. Encourage your student to find a space to see peers and other positive role models.
  4. Seek help – If you are concerned about a student, ask for help. Find a therapist. Call a hotline number. Contact the school for a referral.

Mental health during a pandemic can’t be overlooked and it’s fitting that September is also National Suicide Prevention Month. Check in on your student. Check on your own mental health. Pay attention. What you do and your willingness to be active in students’ lives, can make a huge difference.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations.
3 Ways to Help Prevent Suicide

3 Ways to Help Prevent Suicide

Recently, I learned of a death by suicide by a prominent pastor – on the eve of National Suicide Awareness Day of all days. It was especially tragic because he was quite vocal about the topic from his writings and the pulpit, even going so far as to establish a non-profit promoting mental health and suicide prevention. He struggled quite publicly with his own depression and mental health and tried to keep the topic front-and-center, especially on social media.

Yet, he still died by suicide. 

This was a tough one as I have a lot of friends in the clergy and have some unique insight into the stressors they face daily. I can understand the pressures that might bring someone to contemplate such a horrible outcome. But the question is, how does someone who is so vocal to the point of founding a non-profit still succumb to suicide? Is it just inevitable? Is it even preventable?

After tragedies like this one and so many other high-profile suicides the common refrain is to urge people to ask for help or call the national suicide prevention hotline. These are definitely worthy actions to encourage. Yet, my guess is those who died by suicide likely gave that same advice at some point.

So, are we missing something here? 

First of all, like most tragedies, suicide is not 100% preventable. Despite our best efforts, those in extreme darkness will choose this outcome no matter the best intentions of those who love them. Yet as those who love students, it would be good for us to understand what might drive someone to take their life.

Numerous studies have shown the actual act of taking one’s life comes by impulse more than we think. Often times we perceive suicide as being planned out meticulously like in “13 Reason’s Why”. Yet as survivors of suicide are interviewed, almost half in some cases report the attempt coming after a crisis less than 24 hours before. In fact, 1 in 4 survivors reported their suicide attempt within 10 minutes of the impulse!

Often these suicide attempts are aided by substance use and deteriorating mental health as well. But the bottom line is this – even though some suicides are long planned out, many more are an act of impulse in the immediate aftermath of a personal crisis!

So, as we talk about suicide, we also need to talk honestly about what is going on with the victim and what we can do to help. We need to understand that suicide can be (but not always) prevented by actual intervention on behalf of the one doing the outcry. While we can encourage the potential victim of suicide to act (i.e. ask for help, call a hotline), there are some tangible things we can do as helpers to intervene.

• If you suspect someone might be contemplating suicide – ASK THEM. You won’t be putting any ideas into their head that are not already there.
• Never let someone you suspect is suicidal to be alone. Keep doors open and conversations ongoing.
• Remove any means that could complete suicide. Remove any guns, ammo, pills, rope, sharp objects, or anything that the potential victim could  use to inflict self-harm.

Why?
Because 90% of suicide survivors do not make another attempt! When we as helpers take basic actions like being present, asking good questions, and recognizing the impulsivity of suicide, we can save lives!

It is time we recognize our roles as helpers to those who are genuinely struggling to find their own voice. We have a role to play for our family and friends who have lost hope. To step into this role demands courage and action.

I highly encourage you to follow some of the research at Means Matter – a study out of Harvard working through the question of impulsivity and the means of suicide. This work has been formative for me as a helper of students to understand more tangible ways to help those contemplating suicide.

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

Reach In

Reach In

13 Reasons Why. Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain.

Suicide has been all over the news and social media the past 6 weeks. If you have missed it, you weren’t paying attention. Or you have been trying to avoid it. But it’s an important conversation to have and to keep having.

As I read through articles related to 13 Reasons Why for our upcoming Teen Life Podcast series and scrolled through articles about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I noticed a trend. Somewhere in the article (often at the bottom) was a disclaimer. It went something like this:

How to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world. (via CNN.com)

Or this

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org. (via people.com)

 

Both of these disclaimers have value and I believe should be included in media articles related to those who have died by suicide. It is definitely an improvement over nothing. It starts a conversation about suicide prevention and awareness – which we need. However, there needs to be more. As a friend of mine pointed out recently on social media:

“Reaching out isn’t always gonna happen. It. Ain’t. That. Simple…if we’re depending on the hurt to “reach out,” we’re doing it wrong. We’re a community. Communities have to reach in to help those who are hurting.”

 

Reach in. Show up. Be in community. Look for warning signs. Ask hard questions. Be patient. Persist.

A few questions to ponder:

  1. Who is in your community? Do I need to expand my community?
  2. Who are you concerned about that you need to check on?
  3. Do you know the warning signs for suicide?
  4. Am I teaching the youth I live/work with to be in community? To reach out? To ask each other hard questions about suicide?

 

I’ll finish with more words of from my friend above:

“None of this is simple. None of this is easy. The starting point of this conversation is awareness and suicide prevent. But if we leave it there, we failed. Reach In.”

Beth Nichols is Teen Life’s Program Director. With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, her perspective is invaluable.