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Sultan: Healing the hurt kids of the pandemic
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Sultan: Healing the hurt kids of the pandemic

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Suicide prevention brought to area schools

Mark Norwine, a bullying prevention coordinator with CHADS Coalition on Mental Health, talks to Ferguson Middle School seventh graders about identifying signs of depression and suicide during a health class presentation in 2012.

Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

If your child’s mental health tanked during the pandemic, there’s little comfort in knowing you’re hardly alone.

News reports have been sounding alarm sirens — the rising numbers of suicidal children in hospital emergency rooms, more children needing in-patient care after serious suicide attempts, teens and young adults suffering mental health crises at levels health professionals haven’t seen before, students failing classes at record levels. High-achieving kids who have never struggled socially or at school are now failing, withdrawn, overwhelmed and unmotivated.

Many parents are desperate for help that has been harder to access. In talking to parents stressed about their kids’ anxiety and depression over the past year, I hear how difficult it is to get a timely appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist since the demand has spiked.

“Everyone is seeing huge influxes,’ said Nancy Spargo, CEO of Sparlin Mental Health in St. Louis. “We can’t hire more people because more people aren’t available.”

Instead, they have had to turn away some people seeking help.

“There’s nothing worse for a parent than not being able to help your kid, to watch your kid struggle,” she said.

Parents are also exhausted and emotionally tapped out at a time when maintaining an emotional connection with their children is critical. It’s past time for our country to invest resources in this generation’s mental health recovery. President Joe Biden’s pandemic relief bill delivers $4.25 billion for mental health services, the largest amount behavioral health groups have received in a spending bill. But this may still be far from how much is needed to address historic levels of deteriorating mental health across the country.

Teens and young adults have been the hardest hit in terms of mental health, so how do we help them heal? Nance Roy, chief clinical officer at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicide among children and young adults, says the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic will ripple for the next several years. This has to be a long-term effort.

“It’s not all over once we are all vaccinated and back in school,” she said.

Schools must conduct a proper needs assessment, surveying students and parents about their mental health status and needs, destigmatizing conversations about it and prioritizing how to fill the gaps in resources, access and training. Students need to know where they can easily access direct clinical services at school. Educators need to adjust expectations for students who will struggle as they return to the classroom structure.

Dr. Shannon Farris, with the CHADS Coalition for Mental Health, a St. Louis-based nonprofit providing suicide prevention programming and crisis counseling, says the organization has continued to provide their SOS Signs of Suicide prevention program to middle and high school students virtually during the pandemic. One local district decided to go even further after a student-led survey suggested a catastrophic level of anguish. A survey done by the students at Lafayette and Marquette high schools in the Rockwood School District found that 65% of 852 students surveyed said they had considered suicide. Of 667 students asked, 160 said they had made an attempt to take their own lives. Even in an informal student survey, these kinds of answers require an emergency response.

Students pleaded for the district to take immediate action, and school officials responded. They have also contracted with CHADS to train 16 more adults in a long-term prevention and awareness program. Farris advocates for training all the faculty and staff in a building, along with students, parents and community members on the Signs of Suicide prevention program. In the best situation, the conversation about mental health continues long after the training ends.

It will take all hands on deck to restore what so many adolescents have lost this past year.

“A lot of compassion and patience will go a whole long way,” Spargo said.


Need help?

• If you or someone you know needs help, text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line (741741). You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

• If a parent is seeking help for a child, you can call 1-800-552-8522 or submit a question online at parentlink.missouri.edu. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) Missouri warm line is 1-800-374-2138. The St. Louis Empowerment Center also offers a Friendship Line: 1-866-525-1442.

• Additional local resources can also be found at startherestl.org.

• Provident’s Crisis Lifeline is available at 314-647-4357. It offers free counseling services for adolescents under age 20 in St. Louis County.

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