This week marks the first full week of Mental Health Awareness Month. I am pleased to share that we have started this week with SAMHSA’s 14th Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. The focus of this event was on suicide prevention in our youth. We chose to focus on this issue because of the disturbing and unacceptable rate of suicide in young Americans. Suicide is one of the ten leading causes of death in the United States and the numbers who die by suicide have only increased in recent years. The rate of youth suicide increased by 49% from 9.7 per 100,000 in 2007 to 14.5 per 100,000 in 2017.
Why is it that suicide occurs so frequently in our young people? There are likely to be many factors that contribute to the depression and hopelessness that characterizes suicidality. Given that, we should consider those circumstances and situations that may play a role and are able to be modified. I want to mention two areas that I hope will be given consideration as we try to help our youth to learn alternatives to self-harm. First, we should make helping children to develop self-confidence, self-acceptance, and resiliency priorities in our society. How can we do that? By helping children to understand that they will not ‘win’ at everything. When we teach children how do to their best, but at the same time to understand that we all are different, have different talents and skills, and that there will be adversity in life at times; then we teach them to be able to cope with the challenges of life, to celebrate the wins and, learn from the losses—and, at the same time, to accept each other. Similarly, when we apply these principles in our lives and in the upbringing of our children, we can help to reduce bullying which too often victimizes children and we know, tragically, can contribute to suicide. Second, let’s give consideration to giving our children the gift of freedom from social media 24/7. When our children are in school, they should not be engaged in social media—they should be learning and interacting positively with peers and adults in the educational environment. Consider having your children be ‘off-line’ outside of school as well. Important to a person’s development is personal, one on one interactions that cannot be obtained through use of social media. It’s important to the emotional development of our children and will enrich relationships. It will also give our youth a chance to get away from those interactions in social media situations that can be emotionally painful and difficult to escape because of the pervasive intrusiveness of cyber-interactions.
I encourage schools and school systems to take advantage of the many tools and resources available to train school personnel on recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Consider hiring mental health professionals in your schools if you don’t already have them; if you are not able to do that, ensure appropriate linkages to mental health care for those students who may need it. SAMHSA’s Treatment Locator can be used to identify resources in your area (findtreatment.samhsa.gov) and SAMHSA’s Mental Health Technology Transfer Centers can be a resource to provide education and training on a wide range of issues in mental health with an emphasis on school-based resources (https://mhttcnetwork.org/). I encourage parents to take a stand against a constant dependence on technology and ask your children to put away their phones, and iPads, and tablets and to spend more time with you, with family, and with their friends.
Let’s make sure that our children know that there’s help available if they are sad or depressed or anxious. Let’s teach them that they can survive the world as they know it and learn and gain strength from challenging life experiences. We lost 3,008 young people under 19 to suicide in 2017. Let’s resolve to change this—our goal needs to be no deaths to suicide in our nation. I believe if we work together collectively to support our country’s precious children, we will save thousands of lives.