Monday Musings… Wake Up World!
In 2014, I was asked to go and speak about mental health to a grade 2/3 class. I arrived with my backpack in tow, filled with symbols of stress that I had felt at the age of 7. The students eagerly dug into the bag, and as they pulled each item out, they openly named their 'hard times' too. We had met on common ground. Putting our heads together, we talked about this, and they then came up with over 30 things they could do to cope when things got tough. I left feeling hopeful that this group would be better prepared to handle whatever came their way in the future.
This hope was dashed for this younger generation when I read a startling article that came across my news feed this week: https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/canadian-research-finds-steep-increase-in-suicide-attempts-by-children-1.4375338
The incidence of suicidal thoughts or attempts in children ages 5-12 is not only the rise, but it has more than doubled in the last two years in a well-populated Canadian city. This statistic is comparable to a recently released report of the American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2007-2015 that tracks ER visits. Dr. Brett Burstein, the Montreal researcher who analyzed the data on both sides of the border, calls this a ‘pediatric mental health crisis’. I agree!
So, what is happening? Early childhood should be a time of fun and frivolity, not the contemplation of death! As I observe my oldest granddaughters who will be turning 4 this year, I can’t imagine that in one more year, life would become so horrible in their little minds, that they would want to kill themselves.
Burstein was asked the obvious question as to why he thinks this is happening. He disputed that the numbers are inflated due to increased awareness about mental health problems; that concerned parents are taking their children to the ER more frequently when they suspect their children are struggling, and so that’s why the numbers have increased. The data simply doesn’t confirm that. Instead what it reveals is that 88% of the children presented to the emergency room department for suicide attempts, while 12% were there for suicidal thoughts. It appears that children are going from playing hide and seek with their friends to deliberately wanting to never be found. This is shocking!
Whether people aren’t paying attention to what’s going on in little kids’ heads, or the bold fact that there was no lead in time to the child’s action, it is clear that we must see this for the crisis that it is and get serious about addressing this problem.
In order to slow down this troublesome trajectory, we must come up with some identifying features or risk factors and then put proper supports in place. Burstein was quick to point out that the causes of suicidal behaviour are complex. He did suggest though, and I concur, that a ‘primary driver’ of suicidal behaviour in children is the burden of mental health problems that children perceive in their own lives. We think of childhood as a carefree stage of life, but that is where we get it wrong. Children can and do experience pressure from friends, family, coaches, and teachers. We’ve known for a long time that bullying is a problem, but maybe we haven’t looked at it beyond the peer level. The burden of not fitting in, not being good enough, being made fun of, and feeling incapable of changing those things, is a heavy weight indeed. Burstein further suggests that the impact of social media may play a pivotal role. The danger with devices is twofold: it magnifies the opportunities to constantly compare oneself with others, but it also allows people to ‘say’ things in a written format that is a permanent reminder of how little you are valued. That is a lethal combination that certainly can play on the mind of anyone, but especially a young child.
This crisis, therefore, is a societal issue and so changes must be made at every level to secure a child’s well being. While the easy answer is always to put more money into providing mental health services, we know that is a slow process and often delayed in the political realm. Quite frankly the data tells us that we can’t afford wait times when the tsunami is before us. So, here is a small sample of suggestions from Burstein and myself for immediate action to mobilize change:
strengthen family ties as a secure base for children to explore their world
provide social and emotional education in the home and at school
help a child to find their strengths and encourage them (note: this doesn't mean having them in 5 different sports or clubs; instead parents should become a student of their child and help them discover where they get their joy)
parents should monitor their child's friend group by having them into their home and observing how they interact with their child
limit social media and have joint access with their accounts
As adults, we think much differently about the world than young children do. We have the cognitive ability to process things at a higher level, to filter the negative thoughts and experiences, and then come up with options that young children just are not capable of. But think about how hard that is for us sometimes. So, we must come down to their level, realize their pain is real, and not brush it off as being a childhood phase. Remember what it was like to be a child, and then consider how pressures have grown exponentially, and… how many of those expectations have been imposed or accepted as normal by us.
We can’t afford to sleep on this issue. The data is demanding that we be intentional in our own families and circles of influence to connect with children so they don’t face their mental health battles alone.
I played a song for the kids in that grade 2/3 class that they related to and found hope in. It’s an anthem that young people need to listen to again. Check out “We are Stars” by Virginia to Vegas. and give it a listen.