As Washington state moves toward its second full winter of the COVID-19 pandemic, people of all ages continue to feel stressed, isolated, and experience grief and loss. Our community is particularly concerned about the well-being of young people, whose social networks and routines are disrupted. Vaccines for children and youth 5 years and older are making a difference, along with the care and support of communities, mutual aid networks and a return to in-person school.
However, data released on November 16th by Public Health – Seattle and King County show that the situation is complicated. In positive news, the number of suicide deaths to date in 2021 is lower than at the same times in 2019 or 2020. In addition, no King County adolescents died by suicide in the month of October. But data also show elevated rates of depression and anxiety symptoms in young adults. Furthermore, emergency department visits for suicide attempts and suicidal ideation among children and youth have returned to pre-pandemic level, placing health systems under strain as they respond to young people’s medical and mental health needs. These trends are not unique to King County and reflect national data.
While a return to more normal routines for children and youth is helpful, it’s clear that even positive transitions like returning to school and becoming vaccinated can be difficult to manage, especially for young people who are just learning how to cope with stress and manage emotions. So, what can supportive adults do to stop youth mental health crises before they start and respond appropriately when they do?
Tips to support the emotional well-being of young people
Be aware of the sources of stress for the youth in your life and the adults around them. Ask yourself: What is contributing to anxiety or stress? How can this young person’s network of adult and peer supports lighten the burden?
Nurture caring and trusting relationships – within and/or outside the family. Make space to listen nonjudgmentally. Remember, a major stressor for a young person may seem trivial to an adult, but their feelings are real. Talk openly about mental health and coping skills – think of it as building psychological health.
Keep an eye out for changes in behavior, hygiene, schoolwork, and relationships. If you see something that doesn’t seem right to you, do not ignore it. Tell the young person what you see and give them space to talk about what is happening.
If you have any concerns, make sure your home doesn’t contribute to risk. Securely lock up or temporarily remove firearms, even if you think the young person doesn’t know where they are or how to use them. Lock up medications, even over the counter painkillers and allergy medicines because medication overdose is the most common method for nonfatal suicide attempts. If you don’t share a home with the young person, communicate with the people they live with about reducing these risks.
Ask the young person directly, in a way appropriate for their culture and communication style, if they are thinking about suicide. Asking this question doesn’t cause suicide, and it allows you to get the information you need to give support. For example: “When people stop communicating with their friends, sometimes it means they’re thinking about suicide. Is that something you’ve been thinking about?”
If the answer is yes, take action, but don’t panic!
- If you don’t think the young person can be safe now, go to the emergency department. Emergency departments are always open and have services available for emergencies such as suicidal thoughts.
- If you need help right away but don’t need to go to the hospital, you can:
- Call Children’s Crisis Outreach Services (CCORS), which can come to you to provide free, 24-hour crisis intervention, including de-escalation, safety planning, and connection to longer-term support. Call 206-461-3222 to request help. Language interpretation is available.
- Call a crisis line such as King County’s Crisis Line at 206-461-3222; the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255; the Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386; or text “HOME” to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line. Trained counselors can talk directly to the young person or to you, with language interpretation available. Put these numbers in your and the young person’s phone.
- Consider longer-term resources, such as outpatient mental health treatment. Discuss these with your child’s pediatrician and school-based health care providers and/or call the Washington Mental Health Referral Service at 1-833-303-5437 for help finding appropriate treatment. There may be long wait times for outpatient services, but don’t give up.
- Mental health crises in our youth and children are stressful for caregivers. The crisis supports listed here are available for adults as well, regardless of the family’s income and health insurance, and your own support network can help as well.
For more information, read Public Health’s Data Brief.
Originally published 11/18/21