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Sound Health is a recurring series that airs twice each month on WGLT's Sound Ideas program.Support for Sound Health comes from Carle Health, bringing care, coverage, support, healthcare research and education to central Illinois and beyond.

Sound Health: Teens and the emerging epidemic of sadness

Rates of teen depression and suicide are on the rise
Jesse Zhang for NPR
Rates of teen depression and suicide are on the rise

As life returns to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy, the United States is in the grip of yet another health crisis. Teen mental health has declined precipitously over the past several years.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found the share of American high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness rose from 26% in 2009 to 44% in 2021.

That steep decline in teen mental health is reflected in local numbers as well. “According to the Illinois Youth Survey from 2020, about 40% of our high school students report feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more, to the point that they stopped doing their usual activities,” said Colleen O’Connor. “And what I just described is one of the key warning signs for depression, that hopelessness that gets in the way.”

O’Connor works as a prevention specialist with Project Oz in Bloomington. She also runs a program called Ending the Silence through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The program is focused on teen mental health education and suicide prevention.

O’Connor said rising rates of depression among teens aren’t the only troubling statistic. “We also know that about 15 percent of our young people have seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year,” O’Connor said.

Colleen O'Connor is a prevention specialist
Colleen O'Connor is a prevention specialist with Project Oz, based in Bloomington.

Identifying issues of mental health can be particularly difficult when it comes to teenagers, who are naturally predisposed to bouts of hormonal angst. The best way to tell the difference between typical development and potential problems, O’Connor said, is to look at three different things: Duration, intensity and impact on life.

O’Connor points to the example of a temporary situation – like feeling stressed during finals - versus a teenager who’s experiencing a persistent stress that’s not connected to any particular occurrence. Feelings of stress and anxiety that are routinely interfering with sleep or everyday activities are a sign that it’s probably time to dig a littler deeper with a teenager. O’Connor acknowledges that can be a daunting proposition for parents and loved ones.

“I think when someone is struggling, a lot of times we worry about how to start their conversation. And I think sometimes we're concerned that we might actually make it worse,” O’Connor said. That concern tends to manifest most around discussion of suicide, O’Connor said. But talking about suicide actually has the opposite effect. “When we ask people if they're thinking about suicide, it actually immediately decreases their risk for suicide because it shows that somebody cares, and notices, and that it's okay to talk about it,” she said.

Talking about it should involve a low pressure approach, according to O’Connor. Rather than cornering a teen for a Serious Conversation, try to bring up the subject in a casual, relaxed setting. O’Connor recommends talking while hanging out at home, or during a car ride. “A lot of times young people feel more comfortable talking in the car because there's no expectation to make eye contact,” O’Connor said.

For families who may find themselves in more immediate crisis, O’Connor recommends resources like the PATH Crisis Center. “Young people can call PATH to talk about something they're struggling with or to talk about thoughts of suicide,” she said. “They can also call and ask for advice about how to support a friend.” Parents can also contact PATH for support in helping kids. PATH can be reached by dialing 2-1-1 or by texting 798-211.

“Another really good resource is the McLean County Crisis Team, which is operated by the Center for Human Services,” O’Connor said. Teens may find the crisis text line particularly useful. That service allows teens to text back and forth with a counselor, a mode of communication that may feel safer and more natural than phone. The crisis text line can be reached by texting HOME to 741741.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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