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Mental health concerns among teens increased after COVID-19

Editor’s Note: The following is part of a class project originally initiated in the classroom of Ball State University professor Adam Kuban in fall 2021. Kuban continued the project this spring semester, challenging his students to find sustainability efforts in the Muncie area and pitch their ideas to Ron Wilkins, interim editor of The Star Press, Journal & Courier and Palladium-Item. This spring, stories related to health care will be featured.

MUNCIE, Ind. — Mental Health America is one of the leading nonprofits that helps those who might struggle with their mental health. They also advocate for better research and policy changes regarding mental health.

Before the pandemic, Mental Health America saw roughly 1 million people a year. In 2020, that number rose to 2.6 million people.

Brandi Christiansen, president and CEO of the Wabash Valley region of Mental Health America, has seen an increase in mental health concerns in youth, especially in the rural communities in Indiana.

The youth in rural communities feel even more impacted because they find it harder to connect with their peers during and post-pandemic, she said.

“If you’re different in a rural community, whether that be LGBTQ or the (Black, indigenous and people of color) community, then they have all the regular adolescent issues, and then they’re feeling that disproportion and lack of representation in the rural communities where they are not able to find the support,” Christiansen said. “If they can find that support, then it’s not from someone that looks like them or understands their cultural implications that are important pieces of their recovery (of their mental health).”

In 2021, Mental Health America gathered data of 725,949 people who took a depression screening in 2020. Out of the small to mid-sized counties, Switzerland and Ripley counties in Indiana have some of the highest numbers of frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm in ages 12 to 17, according to their screens. Indiana also ranked as the fourth highest state when it came to reporting frequent suicide ideation.

Christiansen pointed out that because of the legislature in place before the pandemic, it was like pouring gasoline on a fire. Many young teens have already been facing these mental health struggles before the pandemic, but now it has escalated into a bigger issue, she said.

“We have been conducting youth summits here in Tippecanoe County for the past five years, and what we have seen in the post-pandemic world is a lack of trust,” Christiansen said. “Young people are saying that they want to trust an adult, and they want someone that they can talk to, but they don’t know who to trust.

Why young people are struggling

Christiansen explained she believes the political landscape during and post-pandemic has caused younger people to not know who and what to believe.

“They [teenagers] are watching us,” she said. “They are seeing their adults’ problems, and they internalize them, and don’t want them for themselves. They’re becoming hopeless because the adults in their lives seem so hopeless. It makes it harder for them to find some resilience when they are in a dark place.”

Christiansen encourages everyone to take the mental health screening found on MHA’s website if they think they might be experiencing some sort of mental health crisis.

It is better to be safe than sorry, and there are more resources to help those in the early stages of a mental health crisis rather than getting help before it is too late, she said.

One of those mental health resources in Lafayette is Roots to Rise, which is a private practice created by Sarah Boulac.

As a licensed mental health professional with more than 15 years of experience working with children and adults, she has seen a rise in anxiety in children post-pandemic.

Because of the pandemic, she believes people have become more aware of the mental health crisis that they or their children might be facing.

Boulac said parents come to her desperate for help with their children, and therapy might have been a last resort for them.

“I see kids with a lot of anxiety,” Boulac said, “and it can show up in many different ways that don’t seem like anxiety such as behavioral problems, frustration, kiddos that may be experiencing grief or loss, or even kids who have to work through past traumas.”

Play therapy is often successful with younger children

When working with younger children, Boulac uses play therapy as a way to treat her patients rather than diagnosing them. It works better than trying to have younger children talk about their problems, she said.

Play therapy shows her how her patients would interact with certain toys and items when she plays with them. It can also allow Boulac to teach children how to use the appropriate coping skills in a non-directive way.

In a 2023 article written by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety can manifest in children in different ways.

Children can become very afraid when being away from their parents. They might have many different phobias. Children could experience the sense of being afraid when going to school or even thinking about the future and they could even have episodes of intense fear.

What signs of depression show up in children

The CDC states that signs of depression in children include: showing self-injury or self-destructive behavior, a change in sleep patterns, not wanting to do or enjoy fun things, and even a change in eating patterns. Children can be labeled as being a troublemaker or lazy, but they might be showing signs of depression.

Cole Ramsey, a junior at Western Boone High School, had his fair share of experiencing the mental health crisis at school.

“At Western Boone, unfortunately, we have had several student deaths related to mental health, and that has been happening since my seventh-grade year,” Ramsey said. “That was the year when the pandemic hit, and it was a really tough time for kids. That was the first time that mental health really kind of hit for the kids in my grade.”

Looking for a solution in Boone County

Ramsey describes himself as someone who lends a hand when he could. If he sees a problem, then he wants to find some sort of solution.

That’s why he started the Boone County Advocacy Committee.

The committee serves as a way for students to get their opinions heard by school administration and even by county or state representatives to change certain policies it believes harms students.

“It started as a group so kids could talk to school admin and share the issues that they are experiencing,” Ramsey said. “Students could talk about being stressed out due to academic workloads or even issues in their home lives such as suicidal and depressive thoughts. I wanted this group to be a resource for school admins, and it morphed into working with county and state officials.”

Since this group started, Ramsey has been meeting with officials for about a year and has been seeing positive results and attention to this group.

Things tend to work slowly in this aspect in the early stage, but it has already started to create other committees in the schools around him, Ramsey said.

“The end goal for this is change — county and school — and maybe even to have change up to the state and national level,” Ramsey said. “The mental health crisis facing the youth is nationwide, and Indiana in particular really struggles with it. It is something that I want to see get better before I am an adult and looking to start my own family.”

Ramsey is currently working with other schools in Zionsville and Lebanon to start their own advocacy group and hopes that this can help to battle the mental health crisis across the state. He hopes that one day there might be regional meetings where the representatives can come together and talk about issues in these schools and help them on a better path to the future for the younger generation.

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