Mental health experts share tips with CUSD parents in response to ‘catastrophic’ increase in child mental health statistics


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By Lou Ponsi

During a webinar presented by mental health experts from Hoag Hospital’s ASPIRE program to CUSD families, a child psychiatrist shared some recently released statistics on child mental health issues.

Dr. Sina Safahieh, a double-board certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and medical director of the ASPIRE Program at Hoag in Newport Beach and Irvine, said the statistics are not just “beyond sobering” — they are “catastrophic,” he said.

The ASPIRE Program at Hoag is an intensive outpatient program for adolescents ages 13-17 with primary mental health disorders and possible co-occurring substance abuse challenges.

With close to 250 people tuned into the webinar, Safahieh and Dave Cook, LMFT discussed the warning signs parents need to be aware of and shared information on resources available for parents and guardians to get help.

Mental health issues among adolescents and teens had been trending upward even prior to COVID 19 pandemic, Safahieh said.

But the pandemic has exasperated these issues, the doctor said.

Statistics released in May by the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that 13 percent of adolescents reported suffering from at least one major depressive episode or primary health condition in the past year; however, 63 percent of these youth ages 12 to 17 did not receive any mental health treatment.

The U.S. has seen a 60 percent increase in the suicide rate for people ages 10-24 in 2018 compared to 2000-2007 and a 31 percent increase in overall mental health-related emergency department visits for children ages 12-17 compared to 2019-2020.

Hospital ER visits due to suicide attempts by adolescent girls increased 51 percent over the past two years, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. According to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students and people ages 10-14 and 25-34.

“It’s unfortunate that kids that age are actually having suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts and, worst case scenario, of suicide completion,” Safahieh said. “So, it is something that as an organization at Hoag, we are trying to tackle this issue in a preemptive way and prevent these suicides from even occurring before it becomes even more of an issue.”

Signs and symptoms of depression, which should be addressed if they last for at least two weeks, can include performing poorly in school, withdrawing from friends, episodes of anger and rage, sadness and hopelessness, substance abuse, changes in eating or sleeping habits, dramatic changes in personality or appearance and having an overwhelming sense of shame, guilt or rejection. Warnings signs could also include self-harm behaviors such as cutting.

There has been a 45-percent increase in the number of self-injury and suicide cases in children ages 5 to 17 compared to 2019.

Safahieh also discussed the importance of differentiating depression from other mental health disorders because each disorder requires different treatment. Challenges to treatment include the cost of mental health care and access to affordable insurance, concerns over perceptions of others, lack of desire to be treated, and inability to find good care such as lack of resources in the community, Safahieh said.

Aside from bringing their children to mental health professionals, parents have strategies they can implement on their own, Safahieh said. Exercising, eating a balanced diet, sleeping better and spending less time on devices are hugely important for teens and adolescents.

When considering when to give children their own smart phones or allow access to devices and social media accounts, later rather than sooner is the best approach, Cook said. Giving access at an earlier age makes it harder to take the privilege away later on, he said.

“Really do some prep work ahead of time,” Cook said. “Wait until eighth grade if you can. Having a cell phone is not a human right, it’s a privilege that is earned in families. So, teens are not given a phone because they are a teenager, they get to earn access to a phone and parents are in control of how much media and devices kids get to use.”

The best approach is to implement small changes over time, rather than major changes all at once, Cook said.

“We’ll take approximate consistency over sporadic perfection,” he said. “If they can start to make small changes in a lot of these different areas over time, that leads to a greater change over time.”

For more information, call the ASPIRE Teen Outpatient Mental Health Program in Irvine at 949-557-0670 or in Newport Beach at 949-764-6360.


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