(NewsNation) — As a year of economic uncertainty, massive violence and divisive politics comes to a close, new research shows that mental illness is a growing crisis, particularly among young people.
“All of that is based on families, it’s based on individuals, it makes it hard for them to function,” Lynn Bufka of the American Psychological Association, told NewsNation earlier this month. “Efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID have truly turned children’s lives upside down and they are paying the price.”
What can we do to help children struggling with mental health issues? Here are four solutions that NewsNation has investigated this year.
If you or someone you know needs help, resources, or someone to talk to, you can find them on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or by calling 1-800-273-8255. People are available to talk 24/7.
Giving the mind ‘first aid’
When traumatic events occur, children can be affected through television or social media, even if they have not directly experienced the incident.
“The scope of so many of these tragic incidents that occur, children feel like they are living in a threat environment that if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere,” Marlene Wong told NewsNation at the beginning of this year.
That’s why it’s important that parents, teachers, and other adults in children’s lives understand the principles of mental health first aid. The keys to the approach are simple: Focus on listening to the child and suppress the desire to advise or judge. Ask: “What is the hardest part of this for you?”
Talking about what happened with someone you trust releases chemicals that can calm you down and help your brain process emotions, keeping you safe until you can access professional help.
And it doesn’t just work for kids; a study similar programs at universities Found training professors, resident assistants, and others may have prevented tens of thousands of suicide attempts.
Make it okay to get help
Stigma remains a barrier for many to get psychological help, but a group of black churches in St. Louis shows how community members can reach out to their neighbors, even when the public health system can’t.
Bridges to Care and Recovery trains members of more than 100 churches to be “wellness champions.” They teach about suicide prevention, signs of toxic stress, anxiety or depression, identifying human trafficking, and how trauma manifests itself in adults and children.
Her work is both in-person and virtual and she connects with over 100 local mental health and addiction resources. For many of the churches, the majority of the nearby residents live in poverty and many are children under the age of 15.
It’s often as simple as passing the number on to a crisis hotline, offering to talk if necessary, Dameena Cox told NewsNation earlier this year.
“I was struggling with my own mental health issues and the only way I saw them addressed was a flyer (Bridges),” said Cox, who is now a wellness champion. She tells people, “I turned to God first, but he also made me seek therapy. … And once you heal, you can help others.”
Don’t just focus on punishing bullies
Schools can place burdens on children that we wouldn’t expect on working adults, Tyler Black, an emergency psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia, told NewsNation this fall.
Pressure for perfect attendance, hours of homework after a 7- or 8-hour school day punctuated with short lunches and recess periods — all of these can lead to what emergency workers call the “September wave” of children admitted for mental illness or self-harm.
Short-term interventions can help, such as allowing students to take a mental health day, offering patients a break from grades when in crisis, or giving more frequent breaks.
“I encourage parents to really find out if there is someone who can help them (with the school), whether it’s a doctor, a teacher or a community organizer,” Black said. “Ultimately, you’re going to have to be a squeaky wheel.”
And for schools developing mental health plans, it’s important to realize that bullies and the bullied are often at two ends of a spectrum. While bullies show their anguish through aggression, victims are often targeted because they withdraw into themselves.
Studies have found that interventions that work with bullies, as well as victims, are more effective, although the results depend on many factors that are not easy to measure.
Create a before and after plan
There is often only 5-10 minutes between a person making up their minds and then attempting suicide.
During a person’s college years, filled with overwhelming emotions, stress and impulsiveness can be “the last straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Steve Moore, who has been an active advocate for suicide prevention since his son Paul , aged 19, died by suicide in 2006.
moore spoke to NewsNation in September about concrete steps universities can take to reduce risk. That includes making bridges or weapons inaccessible, creating suicide awareness programs during freshman orientation, and offering affordable counseling.
And the hours and days after a tragedy occurs are critical to reducing the risk of copycats, particularly how school officials communicate what happened and available resources to students, through social media, and to family.
But fellow students also have a role to play. Studies show that when young people are trained to recognize risk factors, they are more likely to refer a suicidal friend to an adult.