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September Is Back to School But Also Suicide Awareness Month

The mental health of children and young adults remains a national emergency.

Key points

  • While COVID mandates have eased, young people's mental health is still a national emergency, part of a trend that predates the pandemic.
  • Shielding young people from challenges is difficult considering that they can originate in so many ways and from a variety of sources.
  • It is crucial that parents and educators know the red flags for suicide, which accounts for 5,000 deaths among young people each year.
Scott Webb/Unsplash
Source: Scott Webb/Unsplash

While September is known primarily as back-to-school month, it is also on the calendar for Suicide Awareness, an appropriate overlap especially given last fall’s declaration that children’s mental health was—and still is—a national emergency. And while that declaration largely stemmed from the impact of COVID-19 mandates, many of which have since become optional, it is important to remember that mental health issues in children and adolescents were skyrocketing before the COVID-19 era. This means that even as pandemic pressures ease, kids in school and young adults in college will continue to face challenges that elevate their suicide risk.

Shielding young people from these challenges is incredibly difficult considering that they can originate in so many ways and from a variety of sources. Some kids are the targets of bullying. Others are susceptible to academic and social pressures. Some face stresses at home, from economic uncertainty to abuse. Others are highly sensitive to issues like our changing climate. Also, nearly all in their teenage years and early 20s are contending with negative aspects of today’s digital realities, especially the pressures of social media.

These kinds of challenges can create setbacks for adults, but they have become increasingly common in children and teenagers whose brains are still developing. What’s more, some young people experience them in acute ways. Serious mental illnesses often first manifest during these highly impressionable years, and they can be triggered by the freedoms, temptations, and pressures of adolescence, as well as the stresses noted above.

This all points to the vital importance of parents and educators understanding the red flags that are predictive of suicide. These include suicide ideation, meaning thinking about or planning suicidal acts, but also violent fantasies, obsessions with weapons, social isolation, and extreme changes in behavior and academic performance. Teachers and families must be vigilant in monitoring these warning signs, and seeking professional help for young people, as appropriate. For instance, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals can provide clinical care; case managers help access wrap-around services; and mental health attorneys guide families through the complex legal framework of our mental health system and, in some cases, conduct carefully staged, clinically and legally sound interventions.

Of course, this requires the adults surrounding at-risk students to not only pay close attention to red-flag behaviors but also make difficult, though necessary, decisions. Parents in particular can be resistant to the idea that their children need significant, immediate help for a mental health issue, especially when informed that the recommended course of action is inpatient hospitalization. Because of this frightening prospect, some parents in these circumstances prefer living in a state of denial.

The tragic reality is that 5,000 young people commit suicide each year. It remains the third leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 24. Those statistics must serve as a wake-up call for families all throughout the country who have reason to believe their kids are experiencing a mental health crisis.

This September, I urge parents and educators alike to take a proactive, preventive stance when confronted with the possibility that a child or young adult is at risk of suicide. And instead of fearing the prospect of hospitalization or other mental health interventions, they should understand that the legal standard for these measures is very high and provides for legal rights and protections. It is all designed to serve as an option for those who pose an immediate danger to themselves or others—those who truly need such help.

While it is, of course, terrifying to consider the prospect of a child winding up in a psychiatric hospital unit, we should all be more scared of the possibility that this child might take their own life. By intervening in whatever mental health-legal way is appropriate, parents and educators can potentially prevent death and help take the first step on the road to recovery.

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