10:53 AM

As Seen in The Dallas Morning News: Teens in Crisis

Kristen Pyrc, M.D., medical director of Outpatient Psychiatry at Cook Children’s and co-host of the Raising Joy podcast writes about youth mental health

Teens are in Crisis, and They Need our Help Now

By Kristen Pyrc, M.D., medical director of Outpatient Psychiatry at Cook Children’s Health Care System and co-host of the Raising Joy podcast

This opinion piece was published in the Dallas Morning News on Feb. 22, 2023.

Health care professionals will tell you there are certain patients you will always remember. Years ago in a different state, I had that life-changing experience with a teen I was seeing for therapy as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. To be honest, I adored her. She was kind, authentic, resilient, and funny as hell.

One day, we were talking about her problems sleeping. She confessed that, at night, she would sneak to the top of her family’s refrigerator where they kept alcohol and take a drink to help her relax and fall asleep. There were also some details about her relationship with her stepfather that just didn’t quite make sense. Over time, she eventually disclosed that her stepfather had been sexually abusing her for years. In learning this, my heartbreak was two-fold: first for her suffering in bearing that trauma alone night after night, and second that the red flags were there, but I didn’t recognize them and help protect my patient. In her own way, she had given me clues—all those details that didn’t quite make sense—to test how I might react and whether I would help her. How would I respond if she told me more? Could I handle it?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week detailing the 2021 results of the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is administered every two years to high school students across the U.S. The results were staggering. Forty two percent of high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks that they stopped doing their usual activities. Those are the hallmarks of clinical depression. In the past year, 22% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide, and one in 10 high school students actually attempted to end their life. In a high school, that’s two students per classroom.

For girls, minority students, and teens in the LGBTQ+ community, mental health statistics are even more devastating. Roughly, one in three adolescent girls seriously considered suicide in the last year. Black teens attempting suicide increased from 8% to 14% in the past decade, and nearly 70% of teens in the LGBTQ+ community have experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for kids ages 10-24 years old, and I fear that if we do not take drastic steps now to address adolescent mental health, teen suicides will continue to rise.

What can we do? We must adequately fund mental health treatment so resources are readily available for teens needing support. We need initiatives aimed at supporting the mental health of girls, minority students, and members of the LGBTQ+ community since their risk of depression and suicidality is significantly higher. We have to educate parents, teachers, and community members on how to recognize children who are struggling and the ability to connect teens to appropriate resources. Families must be able to access outpatient mental health resources when they see their child is struggling rather than waiting months to see a counselor.

Our teens have moved past raising red flags and have made a disaster declaration.

 How will we respond? Can we handle it?