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Officials see rise in youth seeking treatment for mental health concerns

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 11/5/2023

Nov. 5—Local hospital and schools officials have seen a troubling rise in youth showing signs of a mental health crisis, a trend some say began before COVID-19 and worsened with the effects of the pandemic.

Feelings of hopelessness appear to be increasing among students this year, said Marisol Peña, associate director of The Sky Center, a suicide intervention hub based at Ortiz Middle School.

"We always look to the youngsters for the hopefulness in life, them looking forward to graduating, going to college, and we're just seeing less and less hope in them," Peña said.

Higher depression rates among youth have caused wait lists in many behavioral health facilities, she added.

The Sky Center receives referrals from Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, which is now seeing an average of one or two youth patients a day.

Arturo Delgado, a spokesman for the hospital, said about 125 patients with mental health concerns visit the emergency department each month; 30 to 50 of them are adolescents.

Public school counselors also say they are referring more students to treatment for depression and suicide prevention this year.

However, the higher numbers of students seeking treatment for symptoms such as anxiety, isolation, depression and suicidal ideation don't necessarily coincide with higher numbers of youth suicide deaths. State and federal data show suicides among New Mexicans ages 10 to 24 declined between 2017 and 2021, the most recent data available, following a 50% rise between 1997 and 2017, with the steepest one-year increase between 2016 and 2017.

State Department of Health records show 28 people 17 and under in New Mexico took their owns in 2018. The number dropped to 26 in 2019 and 2020 and further declined in 2021 to 17. Officials are awaiting data for 2022, said David Barre, a Health Department spokesman.

The state's overall suicide rate ranked fourth in the nation in 2021, and it consistently sees a rate nearly double that of the national rate.

Jenn Jevertson, assistant director of the Office of Student Wellness at Santa Fe Public Schools, said more kids seeking mental health treatment could be a positive sign.

"It's maybe a good thing that referrals are up right now. Instead of staying quiet about it, students are seeking help, and that's really powerful," Jevertson said.

Officials are witnessing a shift in stigmas surrounding mental illness and an increased willingness to report mental health challenges, she said.

The New Mexico Department of Health's 2021 Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, a voluntary biennial assessment measuring youth behaviors, shows nearly half of the 1,265 Santa Fe high school students surveyed that year reported feeling sad or hopeless; 12% reported they had planned suicide, while 15% said they had seriously considered suicide and nearly 10% reported they had attempted it.

Some of the rates were higher for middle school students. Of the 1,095 middle-schoolers in Santa Fe who responded to the survey, a third reported frequent mental distress while more than 25% reported having seriously considered suicide. More than 18% said they had planned to kill themselves, and nearly 12% reported attempting suicide.

Jevertson said Santa Fe Public Schools doesn't track student treatment referral data. Still, she said, "We have noticed with all of our counselors, whether it's the number of students struggling, number of outside referrals or the number of same-day suicide referral assessments, we have seen an uptick in that."

Consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic — financial problems, housing issues, food shortages and an increase in domestic violence incidents — have left a lingering mark on students and their parents, Jevertson said.

Valentina Watson, a school counselor for children in grades 7-12 at Mandela International Magnet School, said students are still reeling from losing loved ones and the destabilization of families during the pandemic.

"The trauma just doesn't go away because it's been two years," Watson said. "We still have a lot of remnants from the pain."

Larry Martinez, Presbyterian Medical Services' director of legislative affairs, whose clinics treat kids referred by school counselors for mental health services, said he believes the uptick in depression among youth began prior to COVID-19's appearance.

Presbyterian offers behavior health services at its newly opened Santa Fe Family Health Center and also operates teen health centers at Santa Fe High School and Capital High School that offer both primary care and behavioral health services.

"They've been exposed to trauma, seen their parents being arrested for drug dealing and taken to jail," Martinez said. "Others have witnessed domestic violence and sexual assault within the home. It seems like we're seeing an increasing number of situations that require our intervention, but COVID did not help."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, examining data through February 2023, also noted the effects of the pandemic.

"High baseline rates of poor adolescent mental and behavioral health were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic," the agency said in a May report on youth emergency room visits involving mental and behavioral health conditions, including drug overdoses.

"Visits among females were at or higher than the prepandemic baseline for mental health conditions overall, suicide-related behaviors and drug overdoses," the report said.

"COVID really isolated a lot of these kiddos," Peña said. "We're trying to figure out how to regulate their emotions. There just seems to be less hope in them."

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