Hospital emergency rooms (ERs) have been flooded in recent years despite the growth of primary-care access and local urgent care clinics in both metropolitan and rural communities. Many of those visits could be avoided altogether with proper education and preventative care—especially that focusing on mental health.
According to a 2017 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, ER visits between 2006 and 2014 related to mental health and substance-use increased by nearly half. However, individuals entering those same hospitals for suicidal injury or contemplation increased by 415 percent in that same period. The public taking notice of mental health crises is great news; however, the disturbing trend is how far individuals, particularly our youth, are falling before they get the help they need for a mental health illness.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stand at one in every five youth battles a mental health disorder, yet fewer than 20 percent ever receive the help they need. Correspondingly, data shows our teens and young adults are turning to suicide at an all-time high since the government began monitoring suicide deaths in the 1960s. Many experts argue this trend is occurring because of an overall stigma surrounding mental health and failure to equip children with the tools needed to maintain strong mental health and the resiliency to overcome adversity.
“As a parent of teen and young adult children, I know my generation was raised where you didn’t talk about mental health, much less admit you were having a problem,” said Canopy Children’s Solutions’ CEO John D. Damon, Ph.D. “Thankfully, our kids are pushing back on the mental health stigma, but as parents, clinicians and physicians, we have to do more to advance the narrative.”
According to Damon, “Mental health and physical health go hand-in-hand. The more we see integrated care by encouraging mental health screenings during annual check-ups, the more adept we will be at identifying and addressing mental health concerns early.”
A secondary component is having physicians encourage parents to have talks about mental health at home.
“It starts with talking to our kids, even preschoolers, about their emotions. They need to learn to identify what they feel and be encouraged to express it to a trusted adult,” says Hart Wylie, PMHNP-BC, psychiatric nurse practitioner with Canopy Behavioral Health Solutions. “If they practice this sequence when they are young, they are more likely to continue it as teens and adults. Parents should remember regardless of what their child tells them, to remain calm, listen intently and ask their child to ‘help me understand’ or ‘tell me more.’”
Caleb Cauthen, LPC, outpatient therapist at Canopy’s Center of Excellence cautions parents about not driving the narrative for tough topics with their teens.
“You see teen dramas like 13 Reasons Why that contain horrifyingly realistic depictions of suicide that script it as this glamorized ‘last laugh’ for the main character. It’s disturbing and completely inaccurate,” says Cauthen. “When kids see things like this and haven’t been told the truth about suicide or the right ways of dealing with heavy feelings, you wind up with kids acting impulsively and emulating things they’ve seen in movies, TV shows, videogames, and things they’ve heard from peers. Parents have to consider that kids will learn about suicide, sex, drugs, but in order to safeguard them, kids need to first hear about these topics from their parents.”
Wylie and Cauthen echo one another in saying that the most important thing is for parents to be aware of what is happening in their kids’ lives. Staff at hospitals and clinics, as well as parents and educators, need to be aware of the signs of mental health concerns and actively encourage parents to seek help from a licensed professional for their child if they notice significant changes in behavior, drop in grades, changes in physical appearance (such as weight loss or gain), disengagement in interests or friends or signs of hopelessness. Parents should model that when help is needed, it is okay to ask.
“Preventative care and real conversations are the keys to tackling the uptick in youth suicides,” said Cauthen. “If a child is in immediate danger from suicide, they should be taken to the nearest emergency room. However, we shouldn’t allow it to get to that point—intervention should take place long before. We need to show kids that mental health matters and it is okay to feel big emotions but when those feelings get too big to handle, ask for help.”
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Canopy Children’s Solutions encourages healthcare providers across the state to provide patients and families with resources about mental health treatment and screenings as well as listings for the National Suicide Lifeline where individuals can access free, confidential crisis support 24 hours a day.
ABOUT CANOPY CHILDREN’S SOLUTIONS Canopy’s mission is to help children thrive and families overcome extraordinary challenges by providing a comprehensive continuum of behavioral health, educational, and social service solutions. For more than 100 years, Canopy has provided innovative solutions to many of Mississippi’s most vulnerable youth. Today, we have grown into a robust network of statewide programs. Learn more at mycanopy.org.
The article appeared in the Mississippi Hospital Association‘s Mississippi Hospitals Volume 25, Fall 2019 edition.