Vermont’s Department of Health recently released data from the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and it is consistent with the alarm bells that have been going off for the past several years in communities across the state - our youth are increasingly experiencing mental health challenges. The numbers are indeed concerning. In the 30 days prior to the survey, 35% of students reported poor mental health most or all of the time. 30% reported significant depressive symptoms for at least a 2-week period in the previous year, and 36% reported significant anxiety most or all of the time for the past year. Particularly worrisome are the 14% who reported having made a plan about how they would attempt suicide.
Rates of youth mental health concerns were rising steadily in the decade before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then, not surprisingly, soared following the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Humans are fundamentally social creatures, and social engagement is a requisite foundation for our mental health maintenance.
The impact was so significant, that in 2021, The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association joined together to issue a Declaration of a National Emergency in youth mental health, noting the dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts. Also in 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General released an Advisory spotlighting the critical need for attention to youth mental health. Everyone agrees that our youth are suffering, and we need to do something about it.
The magnitude of the youth mental health crisis demands coordinated and collaborative work from everyone. Finding solutions will require contributions from individuals, organizations, communities, and government. Increased access to care is essential. Examples include advocacy from individuals, as well as supporting programs such as embedding more mental health resources within schools and local communities. Healthcare organizations can better coordinate mental health and primary care health treatment. Organizational support for campaigns to educate and de-stigmatize mental health, will improve the likelihood that those in need will reach out for care.
Brattleboro Retreat is committed to being part of the solution. We have dedicated a significant portion of our resources to expand mental health treatment options for children and adolescents. In January of 2022, we were filling 12 total inpatient beds for the pediatric population. Consistently high numbers of pediatric patients waiting in Emergency Departments led to creatively working to more than double that number. This past spring, a total of 30 beds were available, resulting in a marked decrease state-wide in pediatric wait times in the Emergency Departments.
Additionally, we are expanding resources across the continuum of care. We have grown our outpatient therapeutic and psychiatry capacity. Plans for an Adolescent Partial Hospital Program have begun. We have developed a proposal to increase the number of residential beds for youth. We are providing child and adolescent psychiatric consultations for Rutland Regional to provide care as early as possible for those pediatric patients waiting in their ED.
While attention broadly to our mental health system is critical, most important is ensuring the well-being and safety of our individual children and adolescents. Friends and families of youth should be aware of some of the warning signs that their loved one may be struggling with their mental health. Sudden changes in patterns of sleep, attitude, behavior or personality, increased isolation, or unexpected changes with academic performance can all be indicators that a young person is in need of support. If these are noticed, reach out in a compassionate and non-judgmental manner to check on how they are doing, and, when needed, support them with accessing potential supports. For youth who are experiencing challenges, know that asking for help is a sign of strength, and is a crucial first step.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out immediately to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.
Dr. Karl Jeffries is Chief Medical Officer at the Brattleboro Retreat. For more information on the mental health services offered at the Retreat, go to brattlebororetreat.org or call 802-258-3700.