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January 8, 2021
Most high school and college students struggle while trying to succeed in the classroom, fit in with their peers, and cope with all the highs and lows of growing up.
While all children are at risk for depression and the symptoms that accompany it, many parents are unaware of the signs that their kids are struggling. Other parents may also be in denial, refusing to believe their children are experiencing anything other than the normal ups and downs of young adulthood.
Parents need to be aware of the stresses that may put their children at risk.
For example, young adults with previously diagnosed mental health conditions are more likely to consider suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Children with a history of trauma, those who have had a family member attempt or commit suicide, LGBTQ kids, and members of minority groups are also more vulnerable.
In interacting with their kids, parents need to become more engaged and aware. Listen more than talk—and take your child’s words seriously.
A young adult who says they feel trapped or “can’t go on this way” may mean exactly what they say. Do not ignore these words. Instead, express your concern and emphasize your willingness to help. Tell your child that, together, you can address these problems and move forward.
Also, if you find out your child is looking for information on how to take their own life or seeking to obtain a gun, take steps to ensure safety. Hide or remove any weapons you might have and lock up dangerous medications. If you find yourself in this situation, please contact a mental health professional immediately.
Growing up is hard—it always has been. But today’s parents must be aware that high school and college students are facing increased pressure. “The role of a parent has never been much more critical than it is today,” said Omotola T’Sarumi, MD, a psychiatrist at McLean.
Parents need to be aware that their child could be struggling with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues. They need to play an active role to secure the emotional health of their children. “When they ask their child a question and the response is ‘I’m okay,’ don’t take it at face value,” she urged.
Parents need to be more engaged in the lives of their children to address depression, anxiety, and suicide. “As a parent,” T’Sarumi said, “you may have to probe and look out for those early signs of anxiety, depression—fatigue, low motivation, irritability—to address as soon as possible.”
If your child appears increasingly anxious, depressed, or hopeless, don’t wait to seek help. “For the times we live in,” T’Sarumi said, “early awareness and treatment is crucial for the mental well-being of our kids.”
If you or someone you know needs help, there are a number of resources available, many accessible 24/7/365.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 15 and 24, with young adults having the highest occurrence of serious suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts amongst all age groups.
A 2019 CDC report found high rates of suicide and suicidal ideation among high-schoolers, with nearly 9% of all students claiming they have attempted suicide.
“Clinically we have seen an increase in young adults presenting with first-time suicidal attempts, depression with suicidal ideations, increased anxiety, and increase in substance use,” added T’Sarumi.
Unfortunately, the pressures of being a young adult do not go away during the college years. A 2018 study by Harvard Medical School researchers found high rates of mental illness and thoughts of suicide among the more than 67,000 students attending more than 100 colleges.
More than 20% of respondents said that they had experienced situations that increased their stress levels, leading to a range of mental health issues, including suicide attempts and self-harm.
The pandemic has added another layer of stress to this already anxious population. In June, the CDC released findings that 25.5% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 had “seriously contemplated suicide” that month.
T’Sarumi shared, “A comparison study of the mental health state of young adults in 2018 versus 2020 showed an increase in mental distress in 2020.” This increase may be due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on kids and teens in particular.
Before COVID, T’Sarumi said, most youth were able to cope and mask challenges by hanging with friends; going to the movies, restaurants, or museums; or celebrating birthdays or graduations. “But due to lockdown restrictions,” she explained, “they are forced to face and rehash their internal ugly and dark thoughts, over and over without a way of escape.”
Additionally, the added fear of a family member getting COVID and added financial hardships have proven difficult. In turn, it has made a seemingly bad situation worse for each already vulnerable young adult.
In addition to the common triggers for stress and anxiety, students must now face the fear that they may be infected with a potentially deadly disease when they return to school. On top of that, social distancing, remote learning, and other restrictions on social interaction could intensify already deep feelings of loneliness and depression.
Dr. Caitlin Nevins talks about student mental health during the pandemic
While virtual interaction in schools is—for the foreseeable future—here to stay, it’s important to remember that there are students who are struggling.
“Virtual interaction can be challenging, especially for students who struggle with social anxiety, ADHD, low self-esteem, poor self-image, and depression,” said T’Sarumi. “For students that have poor self-image, being on camera for these students has further exaggerated their perceived imperfections, which creates more struggles for these students.”
Parents and students should consider talking to teachers or educators about creating accommodations that need to be made for students struggling with this new norm. “Students have faced disruption without a familiar routine,” T’Sarumi remarked, “and support to provide a sense of stability is needed to avoid an even worse crisis.”
For college students, T’Sarumi encourages both parents and educators to prepare to address the mental health impacts of the pandemic as families struggle with the economic conditions of the continuing pandemic.
“As schools track health symptoms of COVID,” she said, “they should also take the opportunity to track the emotional health of their student population and have detailed protocols for supporting student mental health.”
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