On July 16, accessing mental health crisis care became easier with the launch of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Anyone can call or text 988 to access local crisis care for themselves or for a loved one who is experiencing a mental health crisis.
Though the development of 988 predates the COVID-19 pandemic by several years, the launch couldn’t come at a better time.
One group in particular has experienced an increase in mental health needs during the stress and isolation of the past two years: teenagers.
“At this point I see two or three teen patients come in every day,” shared Dr. Sunita Muranjan, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology-certified psychiatrist at Integrated Psychiatric Consultants, at a recent panel on teen mental health hosted by Blue KC.
Omar Abdelmoity, graduate of Blue Valley West High School, observed the trend among his peers after losing a childhood friend to suicide in 2021.
“I started looking around and realized a lot of my friends were really struggling, but they weren’t reaching out for help because of the stigma around mental health. I realized that we need to change the way we think about these conditions.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the stigma around mental health is one of the barriers that prevents people from seeking mental health treatment. The shame and embarrassment many feel because of the stigma is doubly harmful: not only does it stop people from reaching out for the help they need, but it can also negatively impact their ability to recover. In fact, a 2017 study found that greater self-stigma was associated with poorer recovery from mental illness after one and two years. Self-stigma is when a person internalizes negative stereotypes associated with mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Blue KC makes it a priority to work on breaking the stigma around mental health. A first step in this process is to stop separating mental and physical health. Poor physical health can negatively impact a person’s mental health, and vice versa. Recognizing this fact and taking care of a person’s whole health is what moves the needle toward positive outcomes.
“When someone breaks their arm, you take care of it straight away. You take them to the hospital, they meet an orthopedic surgeon, and when they come back to school, their friends all sign their cast,” says Omar. “About 6 million teens break their arm annually, while 45 million struggle with mental health conditions. Why aren’t we treating these illnesses with the same urgency?”
Think about the care a person receives after a physical injury, too. People will rally around someone who returns to school or work from a physical illness, but the response is often the opposite when someone comes home from treatment for a mental health crisis. People are less inclined to talk about this sort of recovery – and not talking about it only deepens the stigma.
The stigma around mental health doesn’t just affect those who are struggling. Being the parent of a teen who is going through a hard time can also be a source of distress, as parents wonder how they missed the signs and if they had done something wrong.
“It was a complete shock to us. We asked ourselves, ‘how did we miss this?’” says Suzie Gurley, whose son, Will, was hospitalized at the age of 14 with suicidal ideation. “We were by all accounts engaged parents. There was a deep shame too, a sense that we had failed Will in a myriad of ways that he had got to this point. We were afraid to talk about it.”
How can we break the stigma around mental health conditions and encourage people to seek help as easily as they would for an eye infection or a sprained ankle?
Changing attitudes takes time, but one important step parents can take is to foster an atmosphere of openness in the house.
“Work on teaching your kids from a young age that it’s OK to express your feelings, teach them to put words behind those feelings,” says Suzie Gurley, who now runs the You Matter Festival, an annual event promoting mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
Openly discussing mental health conditions can help others come forward with their own story. This was the case for Suzie, whose experience meeting with parents who had lost their son to suicide was a turning point in helping her open up about Will’s struggles.
“We were not very vocal about our journey with Will in the beginning,” says Suzie. “We didn’t want to talk about it. But meeting that family, I suddenly realized what they wouldn’t do to be in my seat right now, next to their son. That was a turning point for me in sharing my story and spreading the message that it’s OK to talk about these things. It’s OK to ask for help.”
If you or a teen in your life is struggling with stress, feeling overwhelmed, dealing with anxiety, feeling depressed, or thinking about suicide, there is help. You can reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting 988 any time of day or night. Blue KC also offers its members access to Mindful by Blue KC, a program to support those experiencing a mental health crisis or other behavioral healthcare need. Mindful by Blue KC connects members with a Mindful Advocate, a licensed behavioral health clinician you can reach by phone anytime, who can provide in-the-moment support or help connect you or your child with supportive resources or counseling. A Mindful Advocate can be reached by calling 833-302-MIND (6463).