Youth mental health providers say pandemic has exposed an existing problem, but more support needed in Alaska
When Claire Rhyneer was in middle school, she was going through what she now describes as a depressive episode – “self-harm, not knowing what to do”.
Rhyneer, who is now 19, said in a recent interview that in the absence of other resources, she remembers going Google for self-diagnosis and trying to find help. She ended up finding “horrible and unnecessary information and never really knowing what to do.” And most nights I wonder, like, is something wrong with me? “
Providers in Alaska who work with adolescents say resources in Alaska are limited – that mental health education in schools is lacking, that there are not enough inpatient beds for those with need high-level care, and adolescents still do not know where to turn when they need help.
Alaska has long had one of the highest teen suicide rates in the country. While the pandemic may have exacerbated some of the mental health issues of young people in Alaska, these issues have persisted for years, according to providers.
Rhyneer graduated from West High School in the spring and is currently taking a break before going to Middlebury College in Vermont in the fall.
She is spending her gap year working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Anchorage to help facilitate a storytelling workshop. focused on the discussion of mental health and stigma reduction. She is also trying to get support for of them invoices to the Alaska Legislature which she said would create guidelines that state schools could use to develop mental health education in schools.
This work is important, Rhyneer said, because she knows how much she would have benefited in middle and high school to have more guidance and more opportunities for conversations about mental health. She thinks less stigma and more resources are still needed in Alaska for young people struggling with mental health issues.
“When I talk to other kids there’s this chorus of nods when I say I turned to Google because I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “In health classes, they talked about nutrition and food, going outdoors, dental care and cancer prevention, but they didn’t talk about mental health,” she said.
“I was thinking to myself that you really need to talk about it in schools because you can’t expect everyone to have parents who are willing and able or even there to talk about mental health with their children,” he said. she declared.
At a public event Rhyneer helped facilitate in December a group of teenagers took to the stage at the Wilda Marston Theater in Anchorage and shared personal stories related to mental health. They described harmful relationships, the struggle to fit in, how they would compare to others.
Some spoke about how the pandemic has affected their lives, but most described struggles that have been around for years.
Rhyneer said she believed many young people in Alaska struggled with mental health issues long before the pandemic – and the pandemic only highlighted the existing problem.
[Youth mental health has been a longstanding issue in Alaska. Help us shine a light on this matter.]
2019 data, last year, the state’s annual Youth Behavioral Risk Survey painted a troubling picture of the mental health of young people in Alaska.
The school-based survey of high school students in Alaska – which has been postponed for the past two years due to obstacles related to the pandemic, according to state – showed that of 1,875 respondents in 39 schools, about a quarter had seriously considered suicide and 19% had attempted suicide.
“I sort of calculated how many people in each of my classes I could assume that, for example, were seriously thinking about suicide or had already attempted suicide,” she said. “It’s truly sad.”
The survey indicated that since 2007, there had been a significant increase in the number of students feeling sad or helpless: 38% had felt this for two weeks or more in 2019, up from around 27% in 2007.
The survey also found that the percentage of students attempting suicide had nearly doubled, from 10.7% in 2007 to 19.7% in 2019. In 2017, that percentage was around 12%.
Alaska’s suicide rate has long been among the highest in the country. Average annual rate of adolescent suicide in Alaska from 2016 to 2019 was about three times higher than the national average.
In 2019, suicide was the leading global cause of death among Alaskan youth and young adults aged 15 to 24 – the only age group where this was the case, Leah Van Kirk, coordinator of the suicide prevention at the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, said recently. Rates were also highest among Alaskan natives, males and those aged 20 to 24, according to state data.
“Alaska is in a pretty tough spot when it comes to our continuum of care,” said Jason Lessard, Executive Director of the Anchorage Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, where Rhyneer works.
The issues are vast. They include limited options for Alaskans seeking treatment for eating disorders, fewer beds for psychiatric care and not enough support for young people struggling with mental health issues, Lessard said.
He said that while it may be too early to say the role the pandemic has had on youth mental health, he doesn’t think it has improved it.
“We were already in the wrong direction on many parameters,” he said. “So certainly this problem predates the pandemic. “
Lessard said he believes the shift to fully online learning and socializing may have contributed to some of these issues as well.
“I have a son in high school now – he did almost all of his college online,” Lessard said. Her son went from elementary school in person to high school, “which is a big, big leap.”
He said he thinks in some ways virtual communication has been “a saving grace” because without it people would have felt even more isolated during the pandemic. But he worries that young people are so dependent on social media and screen time for most of their social media.
Karen Zeman, executive director of Anchorage nonprofit for youth, Spirit of Youth, said she also believes teens rely on face-to-face interactions even more than adults.
“I mean, that’s how you make your groups of friends. This is how we have a crush. This is how their society is formed, ”she said.
“There is a set of skills that adults have for socializing that young people don’t have, where they need the building to be in an organized space,” she said. It’s harder online, she says.
Alaska’s struggles are part of a larger national problem.
[In a devastating pandemic, US teens are ‘more alone than ever.’ Many struggle to find help.]
In December, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy published a rare advisory highlighting the urgent need to tackle the mental health of young people, describing a growing problem that he thinks he is exacerbated by the pandemic.
In a 53 page reportMurthy cited data showing that symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of young people showing symptoms of depression and 20% showing symptoms of anxiety.
This research also found that in the first months of 2021, emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were about 51% higher for teenage girls and 4% higher for teenage boys per year. compared to the same period in early 2019, according to the board.
“What I like about this (tip) is that it lays out pretty clearly in one place, what various people or organizations can do at all kinds of different levels,” Lessard said. “It really goes along the lines of, OK, well, what an individual can do, then zoom out from there: what can the family do, what can the school district do, what can the government do. “
Rhyneer said that one thing she would tell relatives and friends of someone who appears to have mental health issues is not to be afraid to reach out and strike up a conversation.
“It’s really important to remember that as scary as it might be for you to ask, ‘Hey, is there something going on? “… It is so much more frightening for the person in pain to reach out,” she said.
“If I was talking to parents, I would say, ‘Hey, don’t ignore the signs your kids are giving you,’” she said.
Lessard said that part of the challenges young people are facing recently have to do with what the adults are also going through in their lives.
“It affects society as a whole, and a lot of it affects young people. So there can be stress at home simply because of the stress it places on the family and which really has nothing to do with being in school or not being in school ” , did he declare.
“Maybe home was the place that caused your depression or anxiety or stressors, and school was that loophole and outlet. So it’s not just the social isolation that might come with it, but all of a sudden, you know, maybe home isn’t the best place, ”he added.
[More Alaskans are being diagnosed with eating disorders, but treatment options in state remain scarce]
The latest state data showed Alaska is seeing an increase in the number of young people between the ages of 11 and 14 who have attempted suicide.
But in 2020, Alaska actually saw a 50% decrease in the number of young people between the ages of 10 and 19 who committed suicide, according to Van Kirk, the state’s suicide prevention coordinator. It’s an encouraging sign, she said.
Lessard said that an important thing to consider when reviewing data from Alaska is knowing that the numbers are in part a sign of increased comfort around talking about mental health and recognizing that this is a problem.
“Maybe not fully as a society, but generationally they’re more comfortable talking about this stuff,” he said.
“We’ve always had a mental illness,” Lessard said. “It just wasn’t okay to talk about it when I was in high school. “
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental crisis or thoughts of suicide, you can call the Alaska Helpline at 1-877-266-HELP or the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255. You can also send an SMS NAMI at 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line at any time. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and Alaska Suicide, visit dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention and namialaska.org/crisis-resources.