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If you or someone you know has talked about contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also find them online at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
The U.S. surgeon general issued a rare public advisory in December, warning of a “devastating” mental health crisis among American teens. Symptoms of depression and anxiety for children and adolescents have doubled during the COVID pandemic. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on why accessing mental health treatment is so difficult for so many. Warning: This segment references suicide.
Last December, the U.S. surgeon general issued a rare public advisory warning of a — quote — "devastating mental health crisis" among American teens. Symptoms of depression and anxiety for children and adolescents have doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But special correspondent Cat Wise reports on why accessing mental health treatment is so difficult for so many.
And a warning:
These next segments include explicit references to suicide.
Chelsea, Youth Villages Mobile Crisis:
My name is Chelsea. I'm with Youth Villages Mobile Crisis. I'm just going to ask you some questions, OK? Have you ever tried to hurt yourself?
Any self-harm, like cutting, burning or scratching?
For the counselors at this youth crisis hot line in Knoxville, Tennessee, it is a busy morning during another busy week.
Is he on any medications?
The hot line averages more than 1,000 calls a month.
How often does this behavior occur?
It is run by Youth Villages, a nonprofit founded in 1986 that works with children who have serious emotional, mental and behavioral issues in 23 states.
Nine-one-one called us about some concerns. I just want to make sure you are OK.
So, have the homicidal threats been since all this happened, or was that prior?
Raquel Shutze is the organizations program director for crisis services in Tennessee.
Raquel Shutze, Youth Villages:
This past fiscal year has been our highest on record.
What do you make of that?
Kids are hurting, families are struggling, and our community is having trouble meeting the need.
That need, which was already growing prior to the pandemic, is hitting families across the nation; 70 percent of U.S. counties don't have a child psychiatrist. And more than 60 percent of youth who report having severe major depression are not receiving any mental health treatment.
Peggy Patrick, Grandmother:
I didn't know where to go. I didn't know who to call. When she tried to hurt herself, I took her to the hospital. It was all I knew to do.
Peggy Patrick has been caring for her 16 year-old granddaughter Jackie since she was a baby in the rural town of New Tazewell, Tennessee. She says, around the age of 12, Jackie started changing from an outgoing and friendly child to withdrawn and often depressed.
I thought hormones, you know? And I even told her that. Guess I tried to convince her that this was a phase.
Was there a moment you can recall when you thought that, we need some help here; this is not normal?
I do. She started cutting herself. She attempted suicide.
And when she would attempt suicide, of course, I'd take her to the hospital.
Jackie's story is unfortunately becoming more common nationwide. Emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts are up 51 percent for adolescent girls since 2019, and one in three high school students report having persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Has it been difficult to find mental health help for Jackie?
Good mental health, yes. It's been hard. I had a list of people that I thought would help her. A lot of them was too far away for us. We couldn't get there. A lot of them wouldn't take the insurance. I mean, you're helpless.
Over the last four years, the family struggled to find a consistent therapist for Jackie. Most were nearly an hour away by car. And treatment options in the area are limited for teenagers and often can be difficult to access.
Jackie told us she once waited a month for a bed to open in a long-term inpatient facility. Nationally, the number of residential treatment facilities for youth has fallen by 30 percent since 2012.
Jackie, Tennessee Resident:
I am a very bad overthinker. So I'm all the time thinking of worse scenarios that could go wrong and how things might just end badly in any way possible.
Jackie says she is speaking out about her mental health in hopes of helping other teenagers.
I was always bullied as a kid. I don't have many friends now as it is. I never got invited to do stuff with my friends. Even if they did consider me as a friend, I didn't get invited to go hang out that weekend or to go to the pool or to the park or anything like that.
So I kind have like a fear of missing out. And, also, there was always the stigma of — like on TikTok and stuff like that, there's the pretty girl image. And I feel like that takes a toll on a lot of people.
Can you tell me about sort of what happened in those days?
Well, they're — it — either I ended up in me self-harming or me trying to kill myself again. So — and those are very scary times.
How many times did you attempt suicide?
Oh, probably about four.
After her most recent attempt earlier this year, Jackie was connected to a Youth Villages crisis team. She was then placed into what's known as their Intercept program, and paired with family intervention specialist Samantha Davis Mize.
Samantha Davis Mize, Family Intervention Specialist:
I'm going to let you be the driver on this one.
OK. OK, so for more calming joy, I think I want to make it my happy place.
Samantha Davis Mize:
OK, so we have got a happy place.
Every day, Davis Mize visits families like Jackie's across this sprawling section of East Tennessee.
Meeting Jackie for the first time and coming into the home and just sitting with her, it was — she just looked like she had a long — she had walked a long journey. She was tired.
And she was just — she was crying out for, hey, I need some help.
Youth Villages says the Intercept program works with about 11,000 families in more than a dozen states.
Sydney Earle, Youth Villages:
I had psychoeducation on trauma responses with the family.
The goal? To bring mental health services directly to the homes of families who need it most. These services include visits three times a week from specialists like Davis Mize and regular consultations with not only at-risk youth, but also parents and guardians.
A lot of parents have never had to deal with this before. This is new.
Sydney Earle is a clinical supervisor for the Intercept program.
We work with a family in their home right, where they're comfortable, and identifying the root of whatever the problems may be and figuring out how to collaboratively solve those together.
One of the first steps for families, locking everything up in their homes that could be potentially dangerous.
So this is your lockbox?
And this is — everything I need is all down in here. When I need to peel the potatoes or get a pair of scissors or — I have to unlock the box. And I have another one over there. It has got some stuff in it.
Peggy Patrick admits this initially felt a little bit invasive.
But it's worth it. It's worth it to keep your kids safe.
Let me just get this situated in our system. Then I will get some information from you, OK? Is he currently safe right now?
Youth Villages funds its crisis hot line through the Tennessee Department of Mental Health. And for many families like Jackie's, these intensive in-home services are funded through the states Medicaid program.
Today, Jackie says the help has come at a crucial moment and that her mental health is now in a far better place.
Eventually, I was — I gave myself the opportunity to say I want help. And I feel like I finally opened my eyes and said that I wanted something better for me and I wanted a better life for me.
Jackie says she is also speaking out to help parents and guardians know how to talk to their kids about mental health.
I feel like every parent needs to listen to their kid extensively. I feel like a big question that needs to be asked is, are you really OK, not, are you doing OK or is there anything I can do for you? No, are you really OK?
And I think that more parents need to have a sit-down conversation with their kid and make it known that they care and that they're there to listen.
Advice that now seems more urgent than ever.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in New Tazewell, Tennessee.
So powerful to listen to that.
Watch the Full Episode
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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