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Sharp Health News

Teen isolation and suicide prevention during a pandemic

Sept. 10, 2020

Mother comforting her teen son
While the teenage years can be an exciting time of newfound freedom and social activities, they can also be laced with feelings of anxiety, social and academic pressure, and loneliness and isolation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, with physical distancing in place and many schools not returning for in-person instruction, teens have been left feeling more isolated from their peers than ever.

Dr. Jennifer Wojciechowski, PhD, clinical psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, wants parents of teens to understand the mental health impact the pandemic can have on their children and the warning signs not to ignore.

"While school closures and continued social distancing recommendations are necessary to keep our community safe, they are also likely to further increase loneliness and the lack of connection many teens already experience," says Dr. Wojciechowski. "The increased isolation and stress related to COVID-19 may also lead to higher rates of teen depression, anxiety and even suicide, especially in teens who were struggling with mental health challenges prior to the pandemic."

Dr. Wojciechowski answers some commonly asked questions about warning signs that parents should know, signs not to ignore, and immediate actions to take if they fear their child is suicidal:

What should parents understand about their teen's mental health during this time?
Teens are dealing with a variety of emotional challenges, such as fitting in socially, defining their identity, and dealing with the changing demands and realities of school and home life due to COVID-19. Some teens have added stressors and burdens during this time, including financial concerns, the impact of racism, family conflicts, and trauma or violence in their home and community.

It's characteristic of teens to display mood swings, distressing thoughts, anxiety and impulsive behavior, leading many parents to wonder whether what they are observing is typical teenage behavior or signifies something more concerning.

Dr. Wojciechowski outlines some of the more atypical and concerning behaviors that parents should pay close attention to:
  • Decreased enjoyment in spending time with friends and family
  • Changes in school performance, motivation or attendance
  • Irritability, low energy levels, changes in eating and sleep patterns, and frequent physical complaints (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, backaches)
"It is important to note that every teen is different and no one sign is indicative of a problem," says Dr. Wojciechowski. "Pay attention to whether the concerning behaviors are a change for your teen, how often the behaviors are occurring, whether they interfere with functioning at home or school, and if they create disruptions in your family routine."

What are the warning signs of depression or ideations of suicide?
While teens are often reluctant to share their thoughts with their parents, Dr. Wojciechowski explains that teens typically display subtle warning signs through their behaviors, conversations and even social media content.

"Parents should be vigilant if their teen lacks a sense of connection or belonging with others, if they express they have no purpose or reason to live, or if they are persistently talking about death or feeling like a burden on others," she says.

Additional warning signs of depression and suicidal thoughts include:
  • Hopelessness, crying spells, persistent sadness and anxiety
  • Disinterest in personal hygiene and appearance
  • Engagement in high-risk behaviors, self-injury, verbal or physical aggression, or substance use
  • Preparatory behaviors such as writing a goodbye letter or post on social media, giving away possessions, researching methods for harming themselves or securing ways to harm themselves (e.g., collecting pills, obtaining a firearm, etc.)
What action should a parent take if they think their child is suicidal?
While it is upsetting and scary to think your child is considering suicide, there are immediate actions parents can take to increase their teen's safety.

"Before starting the conversation about suicide, be prepared," says Dr. Wojciechowski. "Rehearse what you are going to say and select a time and place where you can provide undivided attention to the subject — avoid having the conversation in the car or when other people are present — and have a list of resources ready to go."

California's "Know the Signs" social media campaign recommends the following actions if your child is communicating a desire to die or displaying other warning signs of suicide:

  1. Ask. Discuss why you are concerned — and be specific: "I've noticed you have been sleeping a lot more and you are not answering the phone when your friends call or text" or "Your social media posts about having no reason to live are also concerning me." Ask specifically, "Are you feeling like life might not be worth living or thinking about suicide?"

  2. Express. Tell your teen you care about them and are taking the situation seriously. Stay calm and be compassionate and nonjudgmental toward your child. Express your genuine concern and your commitment to supporting them and connecting them to help and support.

  3. Reach out. If you have serious concerns about your teen's immediate safety, call 911, take your child to the nearest emergency room or contact Sharp Mesa Vista at 858-836-8434 to explore treatment options. Do not leave your child alone until further help is obtained. Additional resources to assist people in crisis and those supporting them include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741).

  4. Follow up. Continue to monitor your teen and check in with them about how they are doing and what type of support they may need. Help them connect to the appropriate resources and treatment options.
If your teen is in crisis, Sharp Mesa Vista is here to help. For nonemergency situations, call 858-836-8434. Always call 911 first if your child is in immediate danger of self-harm.

For the news media: To talk with a Sharp Mesa Vista expert for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.

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