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.
Average Teenage Behavior or Warning Sign?

Average Teenage Behavior or Warning Sign?

 

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How do you know what is normal teenage behavior or a red flag that should cause concern? Adolescents are constantly changing and it is difficult to know when to ask questions and how to recognize warning signs. In this podcast episode, Chris and Karlie discuss symptoms of mental illness that also closely resemble average teen development like withdrawal, need for privacy, and change in interests.

Join the conversation on how we can encourage and talk to our teenagers about mental illness and signs of concerns. As a caring adult in the life of a teenager, you will find practical tips and questions to engage teenagers in a positive conversation about life changes. This is an episode you won’t want to miss as Chris and Karlie tackle a topic that so many young people face today.

 

Resources:

In this interview, we mentioned the following resources:

About Us:
Chris Robey is the CEO of Teen Life. Earlier in his career while working as a youth minister, Chris earned a Masters Degree in Family Life Education from Lubbock Christian University to better equip his work with teenagers and families. Chris’ career and educational opportunities have exposed him to teenagers from a variety of backgrounds. Follow him on Twitter!
Karlie Duke is Teen Life’s Marketing & Development Director, joining Teen Life after graduating from Abilene Christian University with a degree in Communications and a minor in Family Studies. Karlie has worked with teenagers for the past 8 years and is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram!
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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.

Confronting the Momo Problem

Confronting the Momo Problem

The “Momo Challenge”.

Did you hear about it? Did it cause panic among your circles? Did you see emails, Facebook posts, and texts warning you about this terrifying internet presence?

Momo is scary, terrifying, horrible, dark, and twisted. But it is also fake – a hoax. Even though this particular character was fake, it brings up a great question – how do we confront internet and social media issues with our children?

Before I go further, let me give some context for those who haven’t heard of Momo. According to this CNN article, “The [Momo] challenge is the latest viral concern/social media fad/urban legend going around Facebook parenting groups and schools. It’s described as a “suicide game” which combines shock imagery and hidden messaging, and it supposedly encourages kids to attempt dangerous stunts, including suicide.”

According to Facebook posts, the scary, large-eyed doll figure called Momo would pop up in the middle of YouTube videos aimed at children like cartoons and toy reviews. Momo would then ask children to engage in destructive behavior – hurting themselves, loved ones, and even encouraging them to kill themselves. Reportedly, Momo also warned viewers against telling adults about what they were seeing and hearing. It is a horrifying thought that these messages would sneak into videos that parents and adults trusted to be safe for children.

However, while there have been Facebook posts, testimonies and stories, there has been little to no evidence that these Momo Challenge messages exist – no screen shots or recordings. According to experts, Momo is nothing to be worried about and stories of the challenge have been perpetuated by fearful exaggeration.

Now here is the problem with Momo – are children scared of the figure because they saw it in a video? Or are they scared because of the stories and pictures they have seen from parents and peers? Which begs the question – did we make this problem worse by talking about it? And how do we handle things like this in the future?

Here are some things to keep in mind while having internet, social media, or cyber-bullying conversations with you children and teenagers:

 

Question without telling.

When asking teens about current things that you are seeing in the news or on Facebook, start by asking non-leading questions. Instead of asking about Snapchat, for example, ask what apps they are using on their phones. Ask how they interact with friends via the internet. Ask if they have seen or heard anything scary or inappropriate on the internet or their phone apps.

By all means, please ask your teenagers what they are watching, listening to, interacting on. If you have younger children, have them watch videos with you in the room, check their view history and regulate what they have access to. But try to avoid telling them the shortcomings of social media and the internet if they are using it innocently. Open the door for your kids to talk to you without making them worried or afraid of what you might tell them. 

 

Talk without projecting fear.

It is understandable if you are worried. But your kids don’t need your worry and fear projected on them. This is especially important when you are talking about cyberbullying and worrisome content.

For example, maybe your teen received a less-than-nice message on social media. While this is not ideal or even acceptable, it also doesn’t mean that they are being bullied. However, if you project that fear onto your child, they will look for bullying in every situation in the future. Let them hold onto their innocence for as long as possible. Use accountability and some boundaries to check on them without placing rules that will raise anxiety or stress.

 

 Ask without assumption.

Don’t assume that just because an app is popular, your student has it on their phone. Even though Snapchat could be used with some negative intent, it doesn’t mean that your teen is using it for anything besides sending silly pictures to friends.

You should ask. You should question and keep your teenager accountable. But please don’t assume that they are doing something wrong or hiding something from you. When you start a conversation with assumptions, your teen will most likely start their response with defensiveness. Healthy conversations will include questions and an open discussion – they will end with accusations and assumptions. Give your teen the benefit of the doubt and show that you are willing to listen first before reacting!

 

 Discuss without an agenda.

Sometimes, you need to have discussions with your kids even if you don’t have something specific you need to ask about. When you open the door for discussion at all times, not just when they are in trouble or you are worried, they are more likely to come to you on their own instead of you always having to seek them out.

They may think you are being dorky and they may roll your eyes, but ask, “What is the newest app these days?” Ask the cool ways to connect with friends online. Start a conversation about the newest video game craze. Show that you are interested in them. Teens want you to ask – despite their reactions – they want to be heard and cared about. Be an adult who hears about the scary, dangerous, fun, exciting things first because that is the kind of relationship you have cultivated with teenagers.

 

As I wrap up, I want to encourage you to be invested in the social media practices of your children. Know what they are watching, downloading, playing and using. Ask other adults, and stay aware of trends and possible dangers.

Hopefully you did hear about the Momo Challenge, but I also hope you will do research and ask around when you hear legends and rumors. While we don’t want to be naïve adults, we also don’t need to believe everything on internet. Above all else, start conversations with your kids and teens. Ask questions, engage them, and also trust them!

You are doing hard work in an constantly changing world!

Karlie Duke

Karlie Duke

Marketing & Development Director

Karlie was in one of Teen Life’s original support groups and now is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories. She has gained experience working with teenagers through work, volunteer, and personal opportunities.

A Common Sense Intervention That Saves Lives

A Common Sense Intervention That Saves Lives

Growing up in a rather sheltered environment and experiencing the “military brat” existence of moving every 3-4 years, I never really understood or heard a lot about mental health issues amongst my peers as a teenager. We didn’t watch a ton of TV or movies, and most of the music I listened to was pretty tame compared to what was out there at the time. Plus, when you move a lot, most of your time involves getting to know new people – not necessarily understanding the challenges and stresses facing your friends. I didn’t really understand what depression or anxiety looked like, nor really cared much to talk about it. I was too busy trying to keep up and worrying about myself. 

It wasn’t until I started learning how to play guitar that I heard much at all about depression and suicide. There was a ’90s Christian band called “Caedmon’s Call” that featured a dark (by Christian music standards) song called “Center Aisle” lamenting a friend’s suicide. I remember being enamored by the complexity of the chords as I was learning guitar, but I was more struck by the intense emotions of the chorus line:

 “What crimes have you committed, demanding such a penance?

Could have waited for five more minutes and a cry for help.” 

This was the first time I had ever considered that suicide could become an option for a person feeling distraught or out of options. 

It made me wonder if any of my friends had ever considered suicide as an option. While I have experienced seasonal depression, I haven’t ever gotten to the point where I wanted to end it all. But, the more I learned, the more I understood the dark places people go to when they feel there are no other options available. 

The World Health Organization estimates suicide as the second leading cause of death of people 15-19 years of age. As someone who works with and loves teenagers, that isn’t just maddening – it’s a mandate for us to take action. For those so young in life to think there is nothing else to live for is an indictment on so many things. But instead of pointing fingers, let’s look at what could be some very promising research with a surprisingly simple conclusion.

In a recent JAMA Psychiatry article, research was outlined on a study of 448 adolescents admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Within that group, they formed a control group (this group received no treatment other than hospitalization) and a treatment group. The treatment group was asked to identify four adults in their lives that they perceived love and support from moving forward. Those four adults were then trained in suicide education and support measures and asked to check in on the teens after they left the hospital. These adults also received coaching and support from the study writers throughout the process. 

After ten years, the study checked back in on the control and treatment groups and while statistically small, the results were impressive. The control group had 13 deaths while the treatment group only had two. When you break the numbers down, even conservatively, the death rate drops by over 50 percent! 

I have to stress again that the numbers are way too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but for me it speaks to something incredibly important about our (yours and mine) work with teenagers – ADULTS MATTER

I think this study important for the following reasons:

  1. The students selected the supportive adults
    • It is so easy to feel alone as you struggle through depression and suicidal thoughts. To be prompted to identify people who care in and of itself is a healing exercise. And by selecting these adults, a connection is made that cannot be easily broken. 
  2. The adults accept the invitation
    • No one is forcing these adults to participate. But, if a struggling teen asked you to be a part of their recovery, wouldn’t you help? 
  3. The adults learned how to support the teenager
    • So many adults feel like they know what is best for a teenager. We were teenagers once, right? But a learner is a leader in this case. The presence of an adult who is willing to do what it takes to support the struggling teenager has significant influence. 

To me this isn’t just about suicide, though if it saved more lives, I would be screaming this from every platform I have. But, if the presence of a caring, informed adult can potentially save a life, how much more can it help a struggling teenager? The life of a teenager can be overwhelming and full of pressures. If more adults looked and saw the opportunity to learn and ask good questions, imagine what an encouragement we could be! 

I encourage you to read further on this study and the implications here and consider partnering with organizations who are putting volunteers out in the field like Teen Life here

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.