Dr. Andrew Solomon’s article “The Mystifying Rise of Child Suicide” in the April 11 edition of New Yorker magazine will hopefully be a wake-up call for parents, schools, pediatricians and mental health professionals. The article points out that between 1950 and 1988, the proportion of adolescents aged 15 to 19 who committed suicide dramatically quadrupled. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of children aged 10 to 14 who did so more than doubled. In 2020, according to the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide claimed the lives of more than 500 children between the ages of 10 and 14 and 6,000 young adults between the ages of 15 and 21. This makes it as common a cause of death as those who lose their lives in car accidents.
The CDC also found that in the first seven months of the COVID lockdown, US hospitals saw a 24% increase in mental health-related emergency visits to children ages 5-11 and an increase in 31% for those aged 12 to 17. Even though we know that the earlier depressed or suicidal children receive treatment, the more likely they are to recover, children remain drastically undertreated. Research shows that only 1 in 5 American teenagers who end up in hospital after attempting suicide are transferred to a mental health facility for further needed treatment. Even more shockingly, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly two-thirds of the 3 million American teenagers who suffered from major depression in 2020 did not receive any treatment.
Last summer I got a call from a woman in East Hampton asking for marriage therapy. Little did I know at the time that I would become the caretaker and advocate for her stepdaughter Shana, who struggled not only with serious psychiatric issues, but also with a mental health and legal system that continued to hurt her. fault again and again.
Shana was born in Connecticut to a single mother. It wasn’t until she was 2 years old that her biological father was told he had a daughter. Shana’s mother was an alcoholic and drug addict who emotionally, verbally, physically and sexually abused Shana for the first 13 years of her life. After years of legal battles, her biological father and stepmother were finally able to gain physical custody of Shana when she was 14. However, her birth mother still had limited legal rights, although she was not allowed to contact her directly. She was nevertheless allowed to speak with the school and with any mental health professionals Shana saw. Her continued involvement in her daughter’s life has caused Shana tremendous stress and constant worry, which has contributed to her multiple suicide attempts over the years.
Although child protective services and a number of child advocates and therapists have been involved in Shana’s case, the mother has always denied all allegations. It became a script, she said, she said. As a result, the family court was unable to terminate all of the mother’s rights. I believe that if the experts had been willing to take the time to really get to know the case and Shana, it would have been very clear that her abuse allegations were in fact painfully true, thus allowing the court to permanently end the parental rights of the mother. The system failed Shana beyond description.
Shana was recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital after a recent suicide attempt. I was very concerned that his two-week stay would not be enough to deal with the severity of his condition. When speaking with the hospital, they told me that their program was short term and the insurance would only pay for a set amount of time. The family had been waiting more than three months for Shana to be seen by an outpatient psychiatrist before her suicide attempt. They are still waiting for this appointment. Meanwhile, Shana has recently started individual therapy with two new therapists. Hopefully this time, Shana will get the help she needs and deserves, and the stability she longs for.
WHY ARE THERE MORE CHILDREN IN CRISIS?
Many experts believe that online bullying, social isolation and increased use of social media from an early age are contributing factors to depression, suicidal thoughts, acts and gestures in children. More and more children are getting their first mobile phone in elementary school and then staying up late to check who, if anyone, wants to connect with them. Family conflict, financial adversity and lack of mental health resources are also significantly associated with suicide.
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS OF DISTRESS IN OUR CHILDREN
Depression and self-harm do not necessarily look the same in young children as they do in adolescents and adults. If, as a parent or teacher, you have any concerns about your child’s mood or behavior, do not hesitate to contact a mental health professional to make sure your child is not at risk. It is always best to err on the side of caution.
*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy and anonymity of Shana and her family. Shana’s father and stepmother are still trying to have the birth mother’s rights revoked. The legal battle continues.
Beatty Cohan, MSW, LCSW, AASECT is a nationally recognized psychotherapist, sex therapist, author of For Better For Worse Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love, national speaker, national radio and television guest pundit, and host of the weekly Ask Beatty show on the Progressive Radio Network. She has a private practice in New York and East Hampton.
Beatty would love to hear from you. You can send your questions and comments to him at [email protected]. For more information, visit BeattyCohan.com.