Now that Finding Grace is out in the world and I am on the book circuit, I get questions that pull me back to the inspiration behind the story-line for each character. One recent question was about teen mental health challenges. I’m not sure the person asking the question expected the lecture I found myself tempted to give. It is an issue I feel strongly about. The recent images of desperate teens languishing in stressed emergency departments during a pandemic, boarded there until a bed in an appropriate mental health facility opened up, broke my heart.
I have long been aware of the lack of parity in reimbursement for mental health care which results in a shortage of mental health professionals and a stigma in the system that creates suboptimal systems for recognizing mental health challenges and providing immediate and on-going treatment. Recently, a new suicide line has been rolled out nationally which I hope will have the required services to support it.
I hope this effort results in system re-design that will help move the needle away from the very sad suicide numbers for our youth. If the unprecedented chaos of our world over the past few years caused adults to wobble a bit, it nearly ruined many of our youth. Without the safe routine of school and friends and activities that kept young minds and bodies moving and stimulated, vulnerable youth were left to navigate many of the suicide triggers on their own.
Suicide is seen among all age groups, but the highest suicide rates are seen among teenagers and young adults aged between 10 and 35 years. Various factors make young adults vulnerable and contribute to suicide. Family tensions rank high. Emotional or physical abuse, violence, lack of family connectivity, parental mental health problems, homelessness and death of a loved one are all burdens that cause suicidal thoughts.
Children and teenagers who suffer from depression are more likely to commit suicide. Depression symptoms which may include being gloomy, hopeless, bored, stressed, nervous, irritated and hyperactive can often be overlooked by parents distracted by their own difficulties or too easily dismissed as typical adolescent behavior.
Fortunately, our digital age has added to prevention practices beyond in-person resources to include on-line therapy, crisis lines, support groups, mobile apps, video and workbooks. I’m particularly keen on the possibility of spreading all of these services nationwide from city to village. Rural areas have felt this most acutely, as suicide rates are higher and increasing more quickly in rural areas than in urban ones.
Will a new three digit crisis phone number break through to small town and rural areas? Perhaps. Without the anonymity afforded by an urban area, youth in the midst of danger don’t always have the fortitude to reach out to resources in their vicinity—even if there is a mental health center nearby. Just showing up at one would be an act of courage for a teen who may be dealing with a dysfunctional family and may be fearful that someone would recognize them seeking help.
In my novel, Finding Grace, the adolescent character Grace suffers in a toxic environment with a narcissistic mother. Fearing that her mother will win her father over and she will be abandoned, Grace’s muddled state causes her to believe she is the family spoiler with no escape route. Finally, a family friend shakes her guilt-ridden father from his denial and into action by saying sharply, “If one of our girls had broken an ankle in soccer or had a cough that wasn’t going away, we would get it looked at. Just because you can’t see what’s hurting doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be done about what’s going on with her.”
Even after a knowledgable family physician is able to diagnose her depression and make a referral to a psychiatrist, the long wait to be seen is too long, and Grace attempts suicide.
Would a three digit number to call have helped her?