Youth suicide rates were escalating pre-pandemic. Here's how to keep the coronavirus crisis from making it worse.

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting people's mental health. (Photo: Getty Images)
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting people's mental health. (Photo: Getty Images)

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, an annual U.S. campaign to raise awareness for suicide, and National Suicide Prevention Week, a dedicated time “to share resources and stories,” runs from Sunday to Saturday. Amid rising suicide rates among youth and the mental health threats posed by the coronavirus pandemic, experts are sharing tips for helping teens and children.

Suicides are increasing among young Americans — an April study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the rate of suicide in the U.S. jumped up 35 percent from 1999 through 2018, including increases in children between the ages of 10 to 14. And October 2019 data released by the CDC found that teen suicide rates skyrocketed by nearly 56 percent from 2007 to 2017. The data also showed that suicide was the second-leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 in 2017.

It’s important to remember the aforementioned data was collected in a pre-pandemic setting. But now, with youth facing a pandemic and widespread social unrest, some mental health experts are worried that those numbers could increase.

“Given the unique conditions in our society in 2020 — the pandemic, violence, racial unrest, political conflict, destructive leadership and climate change — young people have been infused with hopelessness in unprecedented doses,” clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. “Add these external forces to the expected feelings of angst that are common in youth, and this results in overwhelming feelings of dread in young people.”

Dr. Farha Abbasi, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life that she’s particularly concerned about the “chaos” young people have endured. “They’ve seen wars, economic meltdowns, and now, of course a global pandemic,” she says. “There was a time when you would say that high school and graduation was enough, and now you’re telling them that, even if you go to college or professional school, the job market is shrinking. It’s a lot.”

The pandemic has also caused “ongoing trauma” in youths, Abbasi says. “There’s this whole complex grief going on, and [no one knows] when and how it’s going to end,” she says.

Shari Jager-Hyman, a senior research investigator at the Penn Center for the Prevention of Suicide, is worried about data that isn’t always accessible. “Rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts in youth have also climbed in recent years, although these are estimates as there is no national surveillance for suicidal thoughts and attempts,” she tells Yahoo Life.

“Researchers have many hypotheses about why suicidal thoughts and behaviors are rising, but the truth is that suicide is a complex phenomenon influenced by many different factors,” she says. “Although an increase in suicide rates is not inevitable, and it is too early to understand the impact of the COVID-19 on rates of suicide given the lag in the availability of this data, some preliminary evidence suggests a rise in suicidal thoughts and behaviors during the pandemic.”

Jacob Ham, the director of the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at Mount Sinai, tells Yahoo Life that loneliness and isolation is a big issue for young people during the pandemic. “Isolation is painfully harmful to a person’s physical and mental health, especially for adolescents, for whom peer contact is the most essential environmental nutrient fostering healthy development,” he says.

At the same time, there is a “lack of screening for behavioral health problems” at regular checkups, including for depression, anxiety and suicide, Dr. Steve Rogers, the director of Emergency Mental Health Services at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life. There is also limited access to behavioral health care and increased youth access to lethal means, like firearms and medications. That’s coupled with increased stress and decreased coping skills, he says.

While life during a pandemic has been a challenge for some, suicide researcher Craig Bryan, the director of the division of recovery and resilience at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life: “It’s also possible that some youths are less distressed because they are spending more time with families and have less contact with harmful or problematic peers.”

There are several ways that parents can directly or indirectly lower the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in young people.

Ask children how they’re doing — and keep asking.

Talking to children about their emotions in an empathic way is important, Abbasi says. “Instead of saying ‘What is wrong with you?’ address it as, ‘Why do you think you are feeling that way?’” she says. Ham recommends that parents have a “calm, open-hearted curiosity” and try to understand their children’s feelings “without rushing to fix things and make things all better.”

“Deep listening is often the only salve to stave off despair,” she says. “Suicide isn’t a wish to hurt or kill oneself. It is often a desperate wish for psychological pain to end when there seems [to be] no hope that things will ever get better.”

Be physically present, even if kids don’t want to talk.

It’s not uncommon for someone who is struggling to say they don’t want to talk. But being physically and mentally present matters, Ham says. “There’s a big difference between someone [being] in the same room [but] distracted by their smartphone or their own thoughts versus someone still in their attention and intention toward the person who is struggling,” he says. “Stillness is an incredible gift to give another person. It includes [an empathic] heart, ears that hear without judging and a mouth that speaks to comfort rather than correct or counsel.”

Create activities for the whole family.

“Parents and caregivers should take time to schedule activities and events that are fun and enjoyable,” Bryan says. “These activities increase positive emotions, which serve to ‘undo’ the effects of stress and other negative emotions.”

Make firearms inaccessible.

Bryan says it’s crucial for parents and caregivers who own firearms to make sure they’re locked in safes or with gun locks. “Using locking devices is similar to wearing a seatbelt with driving: It can significantly reduce the likelihood that someone in the home will die by suicide,” he says. “The lifesaving effects of gun locks and safes is especially pronounced for youths.”

Remind children that there is a future.

Mayer has been recommending this advice to parents lately: “Strongly reassure young people that our world does have a future,” he says. “We will survive and beat this.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.

According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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