Is your preteen, teen suicidal? Some hard facts about kids and mental health

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Karen Ranus is the executive director of NAMI Austin.
Karen Ranus is the executive director of NAMI Austin.

Karen Ranus is the executive director of NAMI Austin.

Karen Ranus, the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Austin, offers us some startling statistics on teens and mental illness:

  • One in five kids ages 13-18 in the U.S. experiences a mental health condition in any given year; only 50 percent of them actually receive services.
  • Fifty percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24.
  • About 50 percent of children in the state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental health condition.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 10-24 year olds.
  • Although 50 percent of individuals began experiencing symptoms by age 14, the average delay between onset of symptoms and receiving treatment is eight to 10 years.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics looked at the rates of suicide from 1999 to 2014 and found that suicide is on the rise across all groups of people, but especially in women. And the biggest increase in the rates were in girls ages 10 to 14.

“With such a young vulnerable age group. … it is disturbing and should alarm us,” Ranus says.

While the numbers didn’t give the reasons, Ranus, in working with schools, parents and students has some ideas. She points to the fact that preteens and teens are spending a lot of time on social media, where there’s a lot of pressure to be seen in a certain way and there’s a lot of bullying. She also points to the amount of pressure parents and schools are now putting on kids.

“We’re not the type of community and culture where we value play and value kids just having time to just be, to be outside, to unwind and to be connected (to their community),” she says.

Instead, we worry about kids being on all the right athletic teams, doing all the right activities to be successful. That’s a lot of pressure.

Ranus and NAMI Austin help educate parents in a six-week support program. One of the biggest questions parents ask is how do you know it’s mental illness and not just the typical whirlwind of emotions that come with the preteen and teen years.

It’s the severity of it, Ranus says. “It’s impacting the child’s daily life.”

The things they love to do, they aren’t doing anymore. Their grades are suffering. They have a whole new group of friends that you don’t know or they no longer interact with their friends. 

Sometimes “the funk” will last for a few days, but they get past it. When it becomes the funk that lasts for weeks at a time, that’s cause for concern.

So often what we see is is when they are trying to get back up, they just can’t seem to get able to,” she says. “There’s more going on than just being a teenager.” 

Ranus knows firsthand about being a parent to a teenager with suicidal thoughts. Five years ago, her then 18-year-old daughter was struggling, but it didn’t look like what you typically think of as depression. She was sullen and angry. There was a lot of slamming doors. The kid who Ranus though of as the “cruise director” of the family, wasn’t coming up with fresh ideas of things to do. She was in a dark place.

Ranus says her daughter felt isolated because she would look at other kids and think everyone else was doing fine. And, they of course, would have looked at her and though she was doing fine. “She would just hide it,” Ranus says. “She knew how to put on that mask to get through the day.”

After her daughter was hospitalized and came through it, her daughter’s friends would tell her that they knew something was wrong and they would talk to each other about their worries, but they never said anything to her.

NAMI Austin has been going to high schools and now middle schools to educate students and teachers about mental illness.

Students get a handout with tips on how to talk to their friends if they notice a change in a friend’s behavior. It encourages them to start the conversation with these statements:

  • I’ve noticed you’re [sleeping more, eating less, etc.]. Is everything okay?
  • I’ve noticed that you haven’t been acting like yourself lately. Is something going on?
  • It worries me to hear you talking like this. Let’s talk to someone about it.
  • I am always here if you ever need me.
  • I want you to know that you are not alone; I am always here for you.

It suggests kids should continue to do these things to help their friends:

  • Check-in regularly and include your friend in your plans.
  • Learn more about mental health conditions to understand what your friend is going through.
  • Avoid using judgmental or dismissive language, such as “you’ll get over it,” “toughen up,” or “you’re fine.”
  • Remind your friend that their mental health condition does not change their worth or the way you feel about them.
  • Your friend may be feeling confused, alone or scared. Reassure him or her that with the right services and supports, it gets better.

It also gives kids these 10 warning signs of mental illness:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks.
  • Seriously trying to harm or kill oneself or making plans to do so.
  • Severe out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors.
  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason.
  • Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to lose weight; significant weight loss or weight gain.
  • Seeing, hearing or believing things that are not real.
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleeping habits.
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still.
  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities.

When NAMI Austin first started talking to students and teachers, it was at the high school level. Ranus worried the first time NAMI Austin went to a middle school that the kids might be too young. The new statistics reassure her that middle school is the place to start having this conversation, as do the middle school teachers who tell her what they have been seeing, like the coach who sees his students wearing gym clothes that expose the scars on their arms from cutting.

For parents, it’s time to trust the instincts and get help. And it’s time to stop worrying about what other parents think.

“As parents, when our kids are doing well, we puff out our peacock feathers,” she says. But, when they are not. “We feel like we failed as a parent. These are real medical issues that require treatment that require medication. If you child has diabetes and has got to take insulin, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent.”

We have to start thinking of mental illness as a medical condition and normalize it, Ranus says.

Where should parents go? Start with your pediatrician to get a mental health professional recommendation. If the pediatrician doesn’t take you seriously, find a child psychiatrist. You can also call NAMI Austin, 512-420-9810, namiaustin.org, to find resources.

Or try these local resources:

Teens, who we all know love to text, not talk, can also text START to 741-741, which is the Crisis Text Line, crisistextline.org.

Find more resources at the NAMI Austin walk on Saturday. Activities start at 8 a.m., the walk begins at 9:30. It’s all happening at the Long Center. namiaustin.org

 

 


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