CONCORD, N.H. — Unprecedented times, grim milestones: phrases we’ve heard so much last two years of our lives that they’ve lost their initial commanding impact. Their significance has now dulled away into background noise, just like the first public sighting of masks or that first-morning Zoom meeting.
For anyone who has struggled with mental health over this time, however, certain background noises have been amplifying. Intrusive thoughts and behaviors that may have been drowned out with pre-pandemic routines are now so loud that everything else in life — like family, friends, career, and school — has fallen out of view, making room only for the internal storms so many of us navigate in secret.
"It's challenging enough for an adult, but it's particularly heartbreaking for children and youth and for their families who are watching them suffering," said Kenneth Norton is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health in New Hampshire.
They’ve been watching how the pandemic has impacted the mental health of young people. It’s hard to get exact data points on just how the pandemic has impacted mental health, but what they have been keeping track of is emergency department boarding in the state; people who are experiencing a crisis and are a danger to themselves or others, yet due to lack of inpatient beds, stay in in the emergency department until one opens up. Since March 2020, those numbers have tripled, even quadrupled in some cases.
"That figure is the most visible piece what's not visible is the number of youth and families that are seeking outpatient treatment and the difficulty that they may have in accessing patient treatment, either being told that, that folks aren't taking new referrals or that there's a significant waiting list," he said.
National numbers reflect this trend. In December, the Surgeon General released a report, detailing a rise in depression, anxiety and mental health-related ER visits. ER visits for suicide attempts in girls rose more than 50% in 2021, compared to 2019. For boys, they rose 4%.
"Suicide is the second leading cause of death from, for people aged 10 to 34. So, clearly, we need to find some different approaches to help prevent this," said Dr. Kimberly Mitchell, a research associate professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Her team just received a $3 million grant to conduct a massive study, looking at youth bystanders, friends or family of youth who are at risk of dying by suicide to see what is the best way people who love the person in crisis can help save their life.
"One of the really important parts of this study is understanding what it means to be a bystander. What does it mean when you know, somebody, a friend comes to you and it starts telling you this and you try to help and how does that go and how does that make you feel? How does that person respond?" said Mitchell.
Her team hopes this leads to more successful prevention efforts on the national scale, as well as informs help to the bystanders themselves.
"One of our ultimate goals is to help inform prevention. So, the more we can actually get in and help kids, identify and help their friends, their family, people they're close to the better, right?" she said.
"The good news is that people are seeking help and much greater numbers than they have been previously, and so that's a really good thing," said Norton.
A positive in all of this, Norton says, is the fact that mental health is being discussed more than ever and more avenues of help continue to open up, including a bipartisan bill that just passed the Senate that encourages states and schools to boost suicide prevention education.
"The recognition that if we can provide more mental health supports in schools, if we can change the culture of the school so that, students, all students feel included and a part of that community and have that connectedness, that can really make a difference," he said.
Helping to get a lifeline out to those stuck in their own storms, letting them know they don’t have to sail alone.
If you or someone you know are having a hard time, help is out there. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.