by Erin Sadlowski
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people age 10-14 and 25-34. The data was last compiled in 2020, before the COVID19 pandemic; before families and communities were further fragmented and isolated from one another. Since 2020, the state of the mental health of our youth has become so precarious that, in October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced that it would be joining forces with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology (AACAP) to declare a national emergency in child and adolescent health.
Cape Cod and the Islands has not been spared from the crisis. Suicide prevention advocates have been sounding the alarm long before a string of youth suicides happened on Cape at the start of 2022. According to Mass.gov, between 2019 and 2020, suicides in Barnstable County rose by 48%, a rate higher than any other county in the state of Massachusetts. In a January 2022 Cape Cod Times article, Maura Weir, director of student wellness and counseling at Cape Cod Community College, reported that Cape Cod and the Islands has one of the highest rates of suicide in comparison to other parts of the state.
Caregivers can help
Parents and caregivers, including teachers and other community members, can help notice signs of mental health distress. The American Psychological Association (APA) has compiled a list of behaviors to look for, based on psychology research. They are as follows:
Finding little or no pleasure in life
Feeling worthless or extremely guilty
Crying a lot for no particular reason
Withdrawing from other people
Experiencing severe anxiety, panic, or fear
Having big mood swings
Experiencing a change in eating or sleeping patterns
Having very low energy
Loss of interest in hobbies and pleasurable activities
Having too much energy, having trouble concentrating or following through on plans
Feeling easily irritated or angry
Experiencing racing thoughts or agitation
Hearing voices or seeing images that other people do not experience
Believing that others are plotting against you
Wanting to harm yourself or someone else
If any one of these signs is present, the parent or guardian should reach out to the child's pediatrician or mental health provider for a more thorough mental health evaluation.
Response from federal public health agencies
CDC and funded partners in Massachusetts are working with their departments of education. The goal is to put in place social-emotional learning programs. These programs help children with problem-solving and the development of coping skills. Alternately, schools may seek to install youth development activities aimed at preventing suicide.
AAP and AACAP are calling on policymakers in government and advocates for children and adolescents in Massachusetts. The call is to fight for increased funding, better screening and better access to mental health services. The creation of prevention programs and improvements to acute care systems for mental health treatment like the emergency department are also warranted. Community-based programs in resilience and incentives to recruit mental health clinicians to the workforce are also on the agenda.
Local resources available
The following organizations are in place within communities on Cape Cod and the Islands to connect those in need with resources, educate the public and decrease stigma around mental illness. They engage in education, training and research, host community activities and more. In recent years there has been cross-collaboration among organizations to strengthen efforts.
Barnstable County's Network of Care
At a time in history that feels overwhelming, small steps can make a difference. Make every effort to get your child to their annual physical. The pediatrician evaluates them for behavioral and mental health disorders at this visit. Take advantage of the free local resources available through the organizations above. The services offered can help parents and children make sense of their grief or connect with other families. The Protective Factor Approach demonstrates that parental resilience and knowledge and social connections are both protective factors in the well-being of youth. Through individual diligence and with the help of community and government agencies, state and federal, the health and safety of future generations here on Cape Cod and the Islands is well within reach.
Erin Sadlowski has been a registered nurse for one year and has over ten years prior clinical experience as a medical assistant in outpatient settings. She is a former personal trainer and nutritionist. Erin earned her Associates of Science in Nursing degree from Middlesex Community College in Lowell, MA. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.
Additional source: The new 988 mental health hotline is live. Here's what to know