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Commentary: Increased suicide rates among young people demand our attention

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Waymakers offers thoughts for Suicide Prevention Day, Sept. 10, and shares phone numbers to call from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and local youth shelters.
(Getty Images)

Sept. 10 is Suicide Prevention Day. It’s a time to raise awareness about mental health and the importance of reaching out for help, without stigma or shame, for ourselves or our loved ones.

During the worst waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, when business and school closures caused unemployment, financial strain and isolation, millions experienced anxiety and depression for the first time; while for others, those conditions worsened. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that between April and June 2020, more than 40 percent of adults reported feeling anxious or depressed, an increase from the same period in 2019.

Our children are vulnerable

The rate of suicide among young people also spiked last year. A CDC study published in June 2021, found that in May 2020, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts began increasing among children ages 12 to 17.

The California Department of Health reported that the number of suicides among SoCal youth 18 and under rose in 2020. In Orange County, 11 young people took their lives, surpassing the four-year average of eight suicides. In Los Angeles County, 27 young people killed themselves, surpassing the four-year average of 23.25 suicides.

Last year, Waymakers, which operates crisis shelters and other programs serving vulnerable youth throughout Orange County, supported many children already struggling with mental illness, isolation, loneliness or bullying, who became especially vulnerable to heightened stressors after losing the support systems and routine of school because of the pandemic.

Add to that, some families were forced to move in with other people to survive; and still others lost their homes outright. The resulting stress and conflict caused by such immense pressure on the family was too often too much. As a result, hospital beds were at capacity with young people who attempted suicide, and Waymakers Youth Shelters were full, with a long waitlist for beds throughout the pandemic.

What can we do to help prevent suicide?

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers some of the warning signs people who take their lives often show:

  • talking about suicide, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, being a burden, feeling trapped, unbearable pain;
  • abusing alcohol or drugs;
  • withdrawal from activities;
  • isolation from family and friends;
  • sleeping too much or too little;
  • giving away prized possessions;
  • mood changes like depression, anxiety, irritability, shame, agitation or sudden relief.

If you observe any of these behaviors, please seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. It’s confidential and free.

While the suicide statistics and close-to-home tragedies are reminders that suicide is a public health crisis, there is hope. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center provides factors help protect people from suicide:

  • connection to friends, family and community;
  • coping and problem-solving skills;
  • developing positive self-esteem or a sense of purpose.

Another step toward prevention is the signing of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 into law. The act creates a three-digit number to replace the current 10-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Starting in 2022, people will be able to dial 222 to seek help.

When parents, teachers and community members recognize warning signs, it’s possible to help young people make their way through seemingly overwhelming challenges to a place of stability. At Waymakers, we work to strengthen and support at-risk youth and their families by intervening during times of crisis and by providing support through our Shelter Programs: Huntington Beach Youth Shelter at (714) 842-6600 or Tustin Youth Shelter 24-hour referral line (714) 714-0780.

Together, we have the power to create a culture of encouragement and safety for teens and make a difference in turning these statistics around for future generations.

Ronnetta Johnson is chief executive officer of Waymakers in Orange County.

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