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When Teen Depression Can Lead to Suicide: What a Parent Can Do

March 03, 2021

Disruption to teenagers’ lives, with remote learning, isolation from friends and loss of regular activities, has created a nationwide mental health epidemic for teenagers.

Suicide, in particular, is a major concern, according to Andre Newfield, MD, chair of psychiatry for Hartford HealthCare St. Vincent’s Medical Center for Behavioral Health Services.

“During the time they should be leaving the nest, they’re sort of cooped-up. Where does their independence start when we have this pandemic interrupting all of that?” Dr. Newfield said.

Youth depression rates had been increasing before COVID-19 stripped teens of their activities. One in six teens thought about suicide in the year before taking a Centers for Disease Control survey. The survey noted increased suicides and attempts, especially among minorities and those identifying as LGBTQ.

Once the pandemic canceled proms and sports, switched graduations to virtual events and shifted education online, numbers of teens experiencing depression and considering suicide increased, according to studies by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and ParentsTogether. The latter reported 70 percent of teens surveyed feel sad, overwhelmed and worried, while almost half of parents said their children struggle emotionally.

Distinguishing between sadness caused by pandemic restrictions and deeper depression worsening in the pandemic is a challenge for parents and mental health professionals, Dr. Newfield noted.

“That’s where I think discussions are really important to make sure you’re checking in with people and understanding their perception, beliefs and understanding of what they’re experiencing,” he said.

Talking honestly is key, starting by acknowledging things are not “normal” and may not be for a bit longer.

“I have a teenager at home, so I have these very real conversations.” said Dr. Newfield. “Some of his friends have had suicidal thoughts, so I’m asking ‘Are you having those thoughts? Are you thinking of ending your life?’ It’s really important to know if your loved one is getting to that level and needs immediate help.”

Red flags parents can watch for include:

  • Changes in mood or behavior.
  • Saying things like, “The world may be better off without me.”
  • Withdrawal from activities even further than required by social distancing.
  • Significant increases in anxiety or depression.

Dr. Newfield suggested reassuring teens that depression isn’t their fault, and seeking professional help. They can also encourage teens to stay in contact with friends virtually or in person when safe. Engaging teens in family activities like exercising, game nights or cooking dinner together helps keep them occupied.

“The key to maintaining emotional health is adapting to the new normal,” he said. “Mental illness and substance abuse thrive on social isolation. Keep them involved as much as possible and watch for any signs that emotional problems are worsening.”

For immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1.800.273.8255 or by dialing 988. The National Crisis Text Line allows people to text “HELP” to 741 741 to connect to volunteer professionals 24/7.