Depression and suicide. They aren’t what you associate with children, especially elementary-level kids. Yet, there’s a growing trend that pediatric medicine has been monitoring since at least 2002 of rising suicides in school-aged children. Just last year, in September 2016, a joint paper covering this topic was published via the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In May 2017, CNN’s Susan Scutti covered the story of what was called an “alarming rise” in the number of children hospitalized in the U.S. due to suicidal thoughts or actions. The percentage of kids – from age 5 to teens – hospitalized doubled over nearly ten years. It’s a rude awakening reflective of the mental health predicament brewing in the United States.
Mental Health in the U.S.
The dialogue on mental health is growing in breadth, depth, and meaning. People are beginning to understand that mental illness isn’t a choice, and some of the things we’ve believed as controllable by willpower — cough — substance abuse and addiction — cough — and attitude (anxiety and depression) are actually uncontrollable symptoms of a medical condition.
Mental health is an almost finicky topic. In many ways, it’s like smoke and mirrors and talking about magic; many don’t believe. Decades ago, things like antibiotics seemed to be magic. In fact, for centuries the power of certain plants to heal was seen as mystical. Then came science. As the human race grew more aware of why things work, the “magic” of healing became medicine. Medicine became medical science. Today, medical science is placing scientific meaning behind what we previous categorized as willpower, attitude, and perspective issues. Science has delved into the functions of the brain and with that has come awareness.
Awareness is on the rise, and more than ever before people are beginning to understand what mental illness is, where it comes from, and how to treat it. But there are still those who hold fast to the belief that some things just aren’t a legit condition. Case in point, substance abuse and addiction. But we’re not here to debate its categorization – not today.
We’re here to talk about a growing mental health trend that could cause youth to turn to drugs and alcohol for relief. We’re talking about a mental health epidemic that could spiral into an unprecedented tidal wave of anxiety and depression – two legit mental health conditions that are proven to put sufferers at risk of developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol.
School Aged Children & Depression: The Facts
It’s not pretty. In fact, if you’re a parent, it’s downright hard to swallow.
- According to com, “Suicide was the second leading cause of death among teenagers ages 15-19 in 2014.”
- CNN reports a steady and national increase in admission of children ages 5 to 17 from 2008 to 2015 due to suicidality, and serious self-harm has been documented.
- Girls are more likely than boys to seriously consider attempting suicide.
- Boys are far more likely to succeed in their first suicide attempt.
- According to the paper we referenced at the outset of this blog, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, suicide among elementary-aged children is less studied, but analysis indicates those most at risk are children who experience relationship problems with family and/or The paper suggests the “need for both common and developmentally-specific suicide prevention strategies during the elementary school-aged and early adolescent years.”
Why Depression & Suicide?
There’s no easy answer.
Risk factors for the development of depression and suicidal thoughts vary from person to person. Genetics play a role, as does environment, age, demographics…the list goes on.
In November 2016, NPR published an article entitled, Middle School Suicides Reach An All-Time High, in which the head of the Suicide Prevention Lab at the Catholic University in Washington, highlights an imperative part of the puzzle:
“Kids spend a lot of time at school…it’s where they live their lives. Suicide prevention has been focused on schools for a long time because it’s a place where kids are and where a lot of problems can manifest.” David Jobes
Many teachers and school staff don’t know how to address depression and suicidal thoughts or tendencies in their students. Sadly, most either drastically overreact and exasperate the situation or do nothing – there aren’t many cases of middle ground. NPR goes on discusses how many common myths about suicide play pivotal roles in stopping actions that can (and do) make a difference.
The trend is still relatively new, and despite monitoring and analysis, there isn’t a definitive cause for it. And that’s scary. What’s perhaps more frightening is how this trend increases the risk of substance abuse and addiction for those involved.
Depression & Substance Use
It’s a proven fact: Depression feeds substance abuse. It can even trigger it. It can start a domino sequence of events – many of which are completely normal – that culminate in drug or alcohol addiction. The prescription medications used to treat depression (antidepressants) are often habit-forming in nature. Some are even opioid or narcotic in nature. While legal and approved for medical use, these medications can rapidly speed the patient toward a substance use disorder and addiction.
According to EverydayHealth.com, approximately 20% of Americans have anxiety or a mood disorder like depression. They also have a substance abuse disorder, and it’s not like they spontaneously went out and bought heroin one day – they took a prescription medication (often as directed) and their unique physical and mental makeup triggered what would later be identified as a co-existing condition, a substance use disorder or addiction.
In the case of the alarming trend manifesting in school-aged children developing depression, we see a mounting risk of these same children falling victim to a substance in the future. If we as a society continue to perpetuate the stigma that addiction is purely a choice, what kind of life are we prearranging for the future generation? If we continue to treat the symptoms of addiction with harsh capital punishments versus addressing and treating mental health conditions, what kind of future society are we building?
We’ll be discussing how to combat the trend of school-aged depression and suicide in coming blog posts. We’ll cover the growing risk of our youth turning to drugs and alcohol next, and give parents actionable tips for boosting self-esteem, keeping the lines of communication open, and actively educating their kids about the dangers of addictive substances.
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