As state officials discuss the important issue of whether to keep Arizona schools open or closed in light of the pandemic, there is another crisis that has youth advocates concerned. It is the growing number of calls for help from teenagers expressing lack of hope, depression, and anxiety.
During a press conference on school closing benchmarks last week, the state's Director of Health Services, Dr. Cara Christ cited some alarming statistics, among them numbers indicating the rate of teen suicides had increased in 2020. Dr. Christ stated there had been 43 teen suicides reported in Arizona in 2020, compared to 38 in 2019.
The big question no one has the answer to yet, is whether these suicides had anything to do with the pandemic.
Katey McPherson a youth advocate who studies teen suicide rates and trends in the Valley said it was too soon to tell, but she also stressed that the road to suicide for a young person is often long, and did not happen overnight.
Nikki Kontz, the president of the board of directors at the Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition and clinical director of Teen Lifeline also warned against linking the number of teen suicides to the pandemic yet.
"It is too early for us to draw any conclusions about the rates of teen suicides right now. What I can say is kids are reaching out at a higher rate than previous years. Where we have seen the increase is depression, anxiety, some relationship issues with not feeling connected, feeling isolated and alone," said Kontz.
The hotline is staffed by teenage volunteers who worked closely with trained adults. The volunteers who come from schools all over the Valley only use their first names to maintain a sense of anonymity with callers. Alex,18, is one of the friendly voices that will be there to listen, when anyone calls in for help. Alex said a lot of the calls he is taking right now involve teens feeling a sense of hopelessness.
"Recently it's been a lot of feeling alone, and feeling like you have nowhere to turn to," said Alex.
Kontz said the number of teens texting and calling their hotline had increased by 50% since March. While that sounds alarming, it also brings some sense of relief to youth advocates who say an increase in the number of calls for help can be a good thing.
"It also means our message is getting out. These kids know there are resources out there for them. The good news is we are seeing kids reach out for help," said McPherson.
ABC15 asked Kontz what was leading to increasing levels of depression and anxiety among Arizona children.
Kontz said it was not all about the pandemic. She cited the recent presidential election, the political divide in the community and even among family members in their homes, and social justice issues as reasons children are feeling so overwhelmed.
"In terms of the pandemic these kids, they do worry about their families, they do worry about their teachers. So, while they're not scared of being sick, they are aware they could create a situation where they could make others sick and that creates a sense of guilt," said Kontz.
According to Dr. Christ, a youth survey taken by students between 9th -12th grades in 2019 showed 40% of Arizona teenagers admitted to feeling so sad and hopeless, they stopped participating in usual activities. This was higher than the national average of about 36%. Dr. Christ said almost 21% of high schoolers had responded saying they had contemplated suicide. 16% of those teens had actually made a plan to complete suicide, and 10% had reported a suicide attempt.
McPherson said national trends showed black teenage girls at the highest risk for teen suicide. Here in the Valley, McPherson said they had noticed a disturbing trend involving the age of the children completing suicide.
"Just looking from March until now, we have lost two 12-year-old's and three 13-year-old's to suicide right here in the East Valley," said McPherson.
While elected and appointed officials considered benchmarks for opening and closing schools in Arizona, youth advocates stressed, whether at home or in school, our children need help. They needed a trusted adult they could turn to for advice. This could be a coach, an aunt, or a relative.
"Please ask them if they're safe. It is okay to ask them if they are having thoughts of suicide. If you don't know what to do, please call Teen Lifeline. We will help you. We will be there to support you," said Kontz.
The number to call or text Teen Lifeline is 602-248-8336 (TEEN). The statewide toll-free number is 800-248-8336 (TEEN).
Here are some tips Teen Lifeline has put together for those who need to get through a rough patch https://teenlifeline.org/need-help/i-need-help/
You can learn how to spot warning signs and help a teen in crisis at https://teenlifeline.org/teen-topics/teen/depression/.
The national suicide prevention hotline is also an important resource for people of all ages. Anyone who thinks they or someone they know needs help can call 800-273-8255.