What is it about our high school years that make them remain so fixed in our minds as we age? Why are these three or four years among all the years that came before and after so worthy of unprompted reflection? The replay of the painful and pleasurable moments, of thoughts of the foolish things we said or did, of regrets and successes. As a posting by the Ohio Department of Education points out, our teenage years represent a pressurized and greatly condensed time when we undergo rapid changes physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. It is in high school we become able to think more abstractly and to understand more complex issues.
It is important that we think back and put ourselves in that space if we are to truly understand what is going on with teenagers today. We need to go beyond the numbers and statistics and feel their pain, uncertainty and hopelessness if we are to know what’s at stake — simply put, their future.
Says Kathleen Ethier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, in announcing the finding of a recent report: “Our data make it clear that young people experienced significant disruption and adversity during the pandemic and are experiencing a mental health crisis,” reports medicalxpress.com. Adds Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention: “The nation’s youth were experiencing a growing mental health crisis before COVID 19, and it’s worsened during the pandemic.”
The poor mental state of some parents and adults apparently has also further impacted this crisis. The CDC’s first nationwide survey to assess high school students’ well-being during the pandemic, which was conducted from January to June 2021, says that “55% (of students) reported emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home.” Of these, “about 11% reported physical abuse by a parent or other adult in the home … Nearly 20% had seriously considered suicide, while 9% had attempted suicide.”
Add to that yet another devastating trend among young people. As revealed in a recent peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Despite teenage drug use being at an all-time low, the number of teen overdose deaths has been rising for the past 10 years (starting long before the pandemic),” reports USA Today.
As study author Joseph Friedman explains to USA Today, the reason is that illicit drugs are becoming deadlier. Pills resembling Oxycodone, Percocet and Xanax are often being laced with high levels of fentanyl. Teenagers are “not necessarily changing the practices. It’s just that the drugs they’ve been buying and consuming for a long time have gotten way more dangerous,” Friedman says. “We’re often used to thinking about overdose in the context of addiction, but really what we’re talking about is just a teen kind of experimentation.” Drugs laced with fentanyl now look identical to the prescription ones. As a result, “For the first time in history, as far as we can tell, teen overdose death rates are starting to spike precipitously,” Friedman says. As reported by USA Today, teenage overdose deaths in the United States reached 1,146 in 2021.
Another shocking report comes from the New York Times. It is reported that an ever-shrinking supply of inpatient psychiatric services is forcing a staggering number of suicidal teens to be relegated for days, even weeks, sleeping in hospital emergency rooms around the country awaiting the immediate help they desperately need but can’t get. “According to the standard, adolescents who come to the E.R. for mental health reasons should stay there no longer than four hours … extended stay can risk patient safety, delay treatment, and divert resources from other emergencies,” says the report.
The article, more than a year in the making, is one of a series of reports on the mental health crisis by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Matt Richtel. As his report reveals, this tragic circumstance stands as “one of its starkest manifestations of the (mental health) crisis … Across the country, hospital emergency departments have become boarding wards for teenagers who pose too great a risk to themselves or others to go home. They have nowhere else to go.”
Dr. JoAnna K. Leyenaar is a pediatrician at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She has led a recent study of teen care at 88 pediatric hospitals around the country. She found that 87 of them regularly board children and adolescents overnight in the emergency room. In looking at research and other data, she reasons that no less than “1,000 young people, and perhaps as many as 5,000, board each night in the nation’s 4,000 emergency departments,” the Times reports.
“Frankly speaking, the (ER) is one of the worst places for a kid in mental health crisis to be,” Dr. Kevin Carney, a pediatric ER doctor at Children’s Hospital Colorado, tells Richtel. “I feel at a loss for how to help these kids.”
Among his many encounters, Richtel describes one with a 15-year-old girl he identifies only by her middle initial, G, to protect her privacy. After a recent suicide attempt and following a confession to her pediatrician that she planned to try again, she was rushed to the local hospital, where an ER doctor examined her and deemed that she was not safe to go home. While explaining that the best place for adolescents in distress was not a hospital but an inpatient treatment center, the ER doctor revealed that there were no openings in any of the treatment centers in the region.
The girl and her family resigned themselves to a stay in the ER and wait. At the time, 15 other adolescents in similar mental condition were already housed in the hospital’s emergency department and waiting. Nearly a month went by before an inpatient bed opened up. From the process, “she grew catatonic,” her mother recalled. “In this process of boarding we broke her worse than ever,” she says.
The closure of facilities and the loss of beds and caregivers, the neglect in developing treatment options when health care providers and insurers knew mental health disorders are surging among adolescents — this is the way we protect this nation’s greatest treasure — Its young people, its future?