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How to talk to children and teens about mental health, suicide

A service is being held this weekend for the student who took his own life at Mooresville High School on Wednesday. The service will be held at the school’s stadium and will be open to the public.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association have declared children’s mental health a national emergency citing a rise in mental health emergency visits to the ER and attempted suicide rates.

Joining "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to talk about what she’s seeing in the mental health of children and how to talk with young people about how they’re doing is Lynn Hennighausen with Davidson Lifeline.

Glenn: Lynn, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children's Hospital Association point to the toll the COVID-19 pandemic is having on young people and its impact on their mental health. What are you seeing?

Hennighausen: And we're seeing the same thing, both in my work with Davidson Lifeline as well as my national work with Mental Health First Aid USA. We're seeing all kinds of mental health challenges that are rising up in our youth. I think we have to stop being surprised by what we're seeing, right? Like when we look at data from our CMS students themselves. Pre-COVID 2019, 12% of our high school students reported that they'd attempted suicide, 12 percent of our high school students. And a third said that they'd felt so sad and hopeless sometime in the weeks before that they had stopped doing many of their activities. So this is before COVID started. This problem has been here. We had 44,834 suicides last year, more than traffic deaths. And so this is emerging as a public health problem, and I'm so happy and so grateful to you for bringing this to light today.

Glenn: Is this decline in mental health is it affecting certain genders, certain ages, certain racial groups, certain economic groups, more so than others?

Hennighausen: Yeah, there are for sure some disparities, but no one is immune, right? So from any socioeconomic background, any level of affluence or nonaffluence, we're seeing it everywhere.

Glenn: So you're not seeing any difference in, say, for instance, African Americans, whites, Hispanics and especially the genders? Male, female.

Hennighausen: Yeah. So we know that LGBTQ+ community members are at higher risk for every mental illness and suicide, not because of their LGBTQ+ status, but rather because of the discrimination and stigma around that. There is an increase in African American young people, as well as indigenous populations and Alaskan populations, so there are rises in certain communities. And I think what it tells me is we need to figure out how we can empower our youth to connect with each other and know what to do if they see that there's a challenge. And then also as adults working to connect to our youth to really listen nonjudgmentally and connect in ways that create less isolation and more sense of community.

Glenn: What signs would you suggest parents, friends and others look for?

Hennighausen: Any big changes in behavior are really important to notice. If your young person has been sleeping a lot and now that person isn't sleeping anymore or hasn't been sleeping and now sleeping a ton like those kinds of significant behavior changes, not eating much to eating a lot. Starting to use alcohol and drugs. But then also talking about suicide. Writing about suicide. There's this myth that if we talk about it or write about it, we're not going to attempt suicide. And what we know to be true through evidence is that we do talk about it, we do write about it, we do post about it, we do internet searches about it, right? And so those are points of connection. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and that sense of isolation. If someone has experienced a recent loss, especially a loss by suicide, that's certainly a risk factor.

What I also want to mention is these protective factors that we have. So then the number one protective factor against suicide in young people is one trusted adult, one trusted adult. And so that could be a parent. It could be a teacher, could be a friend's parent but it tells us again that our kids are looking for connection.

Glenn: What do you suggest would be a next step if parents or even friends, if they notice something, how should they go about checking in and approaching the person they're concerned about?

Hennighausen: Stepping into that space. So if I was concerned about a friend, I might say, 'Hey, I've noticed and I'm wondering if you're OK? Hey, I'm curious about what I'm seeing.' And so by asking those kinds of sentence starters, I noticed, I'm concerned, I'm curious about, we create a space where the individual gets to decide at what level to engage. Right? And so if we continue to create that space and then truly listen from a point a place of empathy as opposed to a place of knowing which is something as adults we often do, we know. And so rather than allowing that space for our young people to really have hard conversations with us, we want to fix it. And we know that young people go to young people for help. And so how are we going to empower our young people to notice? And then what adult are we going to tell? Right. So our young people notice something is wrong with a friend or classmate or someone on their team, a teammate. Now I'm concerned about my friend, who am I going to tell? What adult am I going to pull in? Who do I trust? And so we're looking at youth being able to identify those trusted adults in their lives so that when these situations arise, they know what to do.

Glenn: Lynn, thanks for being with us today.

Hennighausen I'm so happy to have been a part of it. Thank you.

If you or anyone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.