Colorado therapists are noticing a worrisome trend in their daily work: Children and teens are frequently seeking help after an attempted suicide or suicidal thoughts.
At Children’s Hospital Colorado, which serves the whole state, more children are coming in with suicidal thoughts – the hospital declared a “state of emergency” for youth mental health in May. In La Plata County, the trend is less clear, but local health providers are noticing high rates of anxiety, isolation and depression are continuing.
“It is striking. It truly is a crisis. Using that word is not an overstatement,” said Jenna Glover, child psychologist and director of psychology training at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “We’re seeing larger numbers of kids seeking services. And the kids seeking services are more severe than kids I’ve seen in my 15-year career.”
Glover said the hospital has noted a 70% increase in youth visits to the emergency department – half of which were for mental health crises, such as suicidal thoughts and attempts. The increase started in summer 2020, but was most apparent from January into the spring 2021, she said.
Glover runs a therapy group for kids who are experiencing depression, suicidal ideation and self-harm. Before the pandemic, the typical waiting list to enter the group was 20 kids. During the pandemic, that waiting list increased to 70 people.
She suspected the increase was tied to COVID-19 pandemic impacts, such as quarantine periods, isolation, irregular learning situations and changing schedules.
“It’s unlike anything any of us have seen in our careers,” Glover said.
Rates of eating disorders, anxiety, depression and isolation are also noticeably higher, she said.
In La Plata County at Axis Health System and Mercy Regional Medical Center, health providers did not see a similar increase in the number of young patients experiencing suicidal thoughts.
About 14 people ages 18 and younger went to the emergency room at Mercy Regional Medical Center for suicidal thoughts between January and April 2021. During the same time period in 2020, 24 minors were admitted for suicidal ideation; in 2019, 20 minors were admitted, according to hospital data.
On average, about 5.6 young people were admitted to the hospital emergency room on a monthly basis in 2020 for suicidal ideation. In February and October, admissions peaked at 11 and 10 young people per month, respectively.
Molly Rodriguez, clinical manager of the Axis Crossroads behavioral health care facility, said numbers stayed steady in the crisis program.
“However, the reasons youth are presenting in crisis services are different,” Rodriguez said. “Examples are increased conflict at home, greater feelings of isolation and less connectedness to social supports.”
Rhonda Ledford with the Community Overcoming Depressed Youth, or CODY, Project said the nonprofit has distributed $6,000 for middle-class families who could not afford therapy. The project was created in memory of Cody Ledford and T.C. Rockwell, Durango teenagers who died by suicide.
“There’s definitely a need out there,” she said.
Hillary Wolfe, a child therapist at La Plata Family Therapy, did see an increase in suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, based on her observations.
Children have been spending more time interacting online during the pandemic, which can lead to higher anxiety, she said.
They’re making friends in online video games, who they never see in person, and interacting primarily on social media, like Instagram and Snapchat.
“They’re seeing these (social media) stories of what their friends are doing, they think they’re not cool, or they're missing out, or ‘Why wasn’t I invited?’” Wolfe said. “Adolescents don’t have the wisdom to see those are just the highlights.”
Wolfe’s advice: Young people should get out and connect with people or get involved in activities, sports and clubs.
Ledford focused on improving access to services, saying it was easy for patients to fall through the cracks as they transition from crisis services to ongoing counseling.
Glover encouraged families to check in with kids frequently. Regular check-ins about concerns and problems allow kids to have conversations they might not have had otherwise.
The state should commit to improving the behavioral health
“At a community level, we absolutely need to have better screening in place to catch these kids who are struggling earlier on rather than having them show up in the emergency room in crisis,” Glover said.