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Combating Youth Mental Health Struggles

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

The following article is posted with permission from Dawn Prosser, Communications Director, Lumen Media and was written by Renee Webb, Content and Design Coordinator, Lumen Media.

As national headlines point to an increase in mental health struggles for youth, diocesan mental health professionals confirm trends with teens and younger children in the surrounding area mirror those of the country. “We have seen a significant increase in the number of children who have needed our services over the past 10 years,” said Amy Bloch, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Sioux City. “Five years ago, 15-20% of our clients were youth, in the past two years, 35-38% of our clients are now children ages 5 to 17.”

To help address this growing trend, the diocesan agency established some new initiatives in recent years.

Services expand

“We started providing free mental health assessments for all kids approximately five years ago to remove barriers for parents and have increased our presence providing onsite mental health services in schools over the past several years,” she said.

Nate Phillips, rural school therapist, joined the staff of Catholic Charities in February of 2021. Presently, Catholic Charities serves 10 of the diocesan Catholic schools and several public schools on-site. “In my opinion, mental health therapy services in schools is akin to having a school nurse or a math tutor on hand when needed,” he said, who added by offering this service in the schools it “helps families with simple logistics.”

Bloch agreed with Phillips’ sentiments, noting that when “kids are struggling in school, it can be difficult as a parent to take them out of school to a therapy session. This way we are onsite and can work with their teachers to support the student emotionally and put systems in place to help them be successful.”

Increase in suicide

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates increased approximately 36% between 2000-2021. Citing additional statistics from the CDC, Phillips noted that suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 14 and 20 to 34. As research shows, the school-based therapist said there is a reason to be mindful of the state of mental health in youth.

“We are currently seeing an increase in teens reporting depressive symptoms. Over 15% of youth expressed a major depressive episode in the last year. Over 60% of youth with major depression do not receive mental health treatment and even in states with great access, one-third go without treatment,” he said. While the COVID-19 pandemic “exacerbated” the issues children were facing, Bloch mentioned that looking back 10 years ago with children having access to a smartphone “there is a direct correlation to the increase in depression and anxiety in kids, especially our girls.” Phillips acknowledged they are still learning the impacts of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, but one positive that did come out of it was more focus has been placed on mental health.

More people are willing to talk about what they are dealing with and that reduces the stigma of seeking therapy. In the years 10 years leading up to the pandemic, the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System found that feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness, along with suicidal thoughts and behaviors had increased by about 40% among young people.

Phillips, who also serves at the Boys and Girls Club in Sioux City, said that while early data suggests that social media has a negative effect upon children’s mental health, in his clinical experience the overall impact of social media, time online, gaming and so forth can be quite complicated. On one hand, youth may not be spending as much time in person with others, but oftentimes they are still engaging and connecting with others. “The difference is in how they are connecting,” he stressed. “So much of their human interaction, or at least the interaction they value, is taking place through their electronics – smartphones, video games and social media. In short, they are still playing with their friends, but what they are playing is more radically different than in any time in humanity’s history.”

Always engaged

Electronics can provide a means to stay in contact with their peers, but Phillips said one of the negatives is “always being engaged.”

“Back when many of us were in school, going home meant an escape from the drama of school – from bullies, boyfriends/girlfriends, so on. Our kids now have no escape and are constantly connected,” said the school therapist, adding that this can lead to sleep deprivation. The CDC recommends 8-10 hours of sleep for teens.

One of the latest mental health studies with youth related to LGBTQ+ students, stating they had particularly high increases in suicidal thoughts and risky behavior. Phillips affirmed that the same struggles that happen in other schools are also happening here. Bloch pointed out that kids can show signs of anxiety and depression on any given day, which can be part of normal childhood development – especially in adolescence. “Parents may want to take note if it is persistent and consistent over a period of time,” she said. “This is a sign that it may be something that requires professional intervention.”

One of the best things a parent can do is talk to and listen to their child – at dinner, driving in the car or while playing a game. Bloch suggested that the parent just listen, empathize and offer support instead of giving advice or sharing ideas about the situation. Phillips stressed the importance of looking out for kids who are actively withdrawing, isolating or are deviating from their norm – such as the quiet child is now loud. When the mental health struggles become to much for the child to handle, he said parents should reach out for help. If someone is in danger through self-harm, suicidality or others, the school-based therapist stressed they should reach out for help immediately.

As Catholic Charities builds upon their services in schools and services to children, the executive director said the programs are working well. “We have had great response from the school administrators and parents,” said Bloch, who noted they willing to go anywhere they are requested.

Read more news from the Diocese of Sioux City in the free e-edition of The Lumen:


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