Parents and educators continue to worry about the mental health fallout from teens being physically isolated from friends, teachers and extended family members during the pandemic and virtual classrooms. Common Sense Media’s latest study found 38 percent of young people ages 14-22 were feeling stressed and depressed in fall 2020, as compared to 25 percent two years ago.
Nikki Kontz is the clinical director at Teen Lifeline, a Phoenix-based crisis intervention and suicide hotline that works to prevent teen suicide. The nonprofit has been helping Arizona teens and their families for 35 years, teaching youth resilience and fostering supportive communities. Kontz says Teen Lifeline is busier than ever, with callers as young as 8! But she’s hopeful, because this generation seems to be proactive about getting help, getting involved and working toward positive change.
Kontz says while the number of calls to Teen Lifeline has spiked, teen suicide rates have declined. She also shared three important things parents should do right now to help create resilient kids: Help kids verbalize their feelings, learn problem-solving skills and find healthy ways to relax and cope with stress.
Everyone is concerned about the mental health of kids and teens in the wake of virtual schooling and the pandemic. What are you seeing at Teen Lifeline?
We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of kids reaching out to the Teen Lifeline hotline for help. In fact, we had nearly 30 percent more calls and texts in 2020 than we did the year before. The largest increase has been in teens calling about issues related to anxiety, depression, family problems and suicide. That increase is not exclusively related to the pandemic, but includes calls about everything our state and country have been dealing with the past year. Civil unrest, political contention, the election and everything that has happened since are also having an impact on our kids. One thing to note: We have seen a decrease in calls related to bullying — likely because schools have been virtual.
Teen suicide rates had been rising in recent years before the pandemic. How does that compare to what you’re seeing now?
Surprisingly, both across the country and in Arizona, there was a significant decrease in suicides the year prior to the pandemic. The most recent reporting from the Arizona Department of Health Services shows teen suicide in Arizona decreased 41 percent in 2019 compared to 2018.
There’s been quite a bit of misinformation about a pandemic-related increase in teen suicide. We’ve definitely seen an increase in kids and even adults reaching out for help and support, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into an increase in deaths. It is still too early for us to presume what the final 2020 suicide numbers are going to look like or how the pandemic has impacted teen suicide. It takes time for the death of every teen in Arizona to be investigated thoroughly by a team from the Arizona Department of Health Services. Teen suicide statistics for any given year are released to the public in November of the following year.
Teen Lifeline staffs its call centers with dozens of trained teenagers — ages 15 to 19 — who lend a caring ear to peers. Have these teens been able to volunteer during the pandemic?
At the beginning of the pandemic, our volunteers were identified as essential workers within the healthcare industry because they are providing support to people in crisis. We worked hard to create a safe space in our facility with social distancing and increased cleaning precautions in place. We are grateful for understanding parents who acted in partnership with Teen Lifeline to ensure our peer counselors were still able to volunteer. For many of our volunteers, Teen Lifeline was the only place they were allowed to go outside of their home.
We did have to decrease the number of trainings we held in 2020, so we saw a decrease in the number of new volunteers we trained. However, many of our current peer counselors were able to volunteer more hours than they would during a typical year. And, a lot of our college-aged volunteers who were attending classes online from home, instead of in-person across the country, were able to come in and volunteer. As facilities reopen, we are planning to ramp up our trainings, with social distancing and safety protocols in place.
A Common Sense Media report says social media is providing teens an important way of connecting with others and to search for needed mental health information and services. For that reason, they caution parents against taking away devices. What are your thoughts?
I completely agree. I’m always reluctant to recommend parents take away their child’s phone, especially as the go-to punishment or first thing they take away. The connection your teen’s phone provides could be lifesaving. It’s imperative that when they need a lifeline, they are able to connect with it.
Even prior to the pandemic, Teen Lifeline staff have worked to educate parents and families that one of the biggest factors helping protect our youth from suicide and even substance abuse is a feeling of connectedness. For teens, that connection is important with their family members, but it is equally important they feel connected to friends and peers. Most of today’s teens have grown up with technology and know how to quickly search for what they need — good or bad. While it’s wise to monitor our teens’ social media use, we have to accept that technology is the way our teens choose to connect.
Sometimes, teens are looking for something as simple as a quick search to make sure they’re not alone in a feeling or emotion. Teens sometimes struggle with wanting to be unique while at the same time not wanting to feel different from their peers. Just like most adults, they don’t want to feel alone. Right now, technology and social media can help them to maintain that feeling of connection to others.
2021 marks the 35th anniversary of Teen Lifeline. What are the biggest changes/challenges in more than three decades?
During the past 35 years, we’ve seen a definite shift in people’s willingness and openness to talking about mental health, suicide, crisis or even just the issues kids are facing every day. The most drastic change in our willingness, as a society, to talk about these difficult topics has come in the last 10-20 years.
We’ve also experienced the birth of social media, cell phones and a significant increase in instant gratification. While our lives have become easier because of these new norms, in some ways it has made life for our kids more difficult. They have to grow up faster than kids in prior generations did, and that is faster than their brain development is necessarily ready for. However, our current generation of teens is much more engaged in advocacy and helping their fellow man than other generations have been. While many of our teens are struggling in ways we’ve never seen before, they’re also trying to create real and positive changes in their world. Perhaps more importantly, they’re willing to put in the effort to actually accomplish those changes. That’s amazing!
Also, in the last 35 years, mental health and research have come such a long way. We’re now able to help people sooner, talk much more openly about mental health and suicide, train teachers in suicide prevention, provide prevention opportunities to parents and teach kids how to help their friends and peers. As an agency, we added our School ID initiative in 2015 and began a texting program in 2016 to make it easier for teens to connect to hope. We’re helping more kids and educating more adults than we ever have. It seems like each year more and more doors open that enable us to create more supportive communities. Some of these accomplishments were unthinkable in the 1980s when we first started.
Is there anything the public can do to help your mission?
At Teen Lifeline, our primary focus is to build the resiliency of our youth. Part of that mission is fulfilled by fostering supportive communities. The more we can work with families and communities to help them support their teens, the better.
If you know a teenager, let them know you’re there for them. If you’re a parent, know that Teen Lifeline can serve as a resource for you, too. If you have a middle school or high school student, check the back of their student ID to see if the Teen Lifeline crisis hotline phone number is listed. If it’s not, ask your school to add the phone number to make sure all the students at your child’s school have access to support. You can learn more about our School ID Initiative at teenlifeline.org/schoolid. Finally, we are a nonprofit organization, so any donations we receive help us ensure our mission to save lives is realized year after year. You can learn more about donating at teenlifeline.org/donate
What didn’t I ask that you’d like to add?
Suicidal thoughts might start younger than you would think. Nearly one-fourth of our calls and texts in 2020 came from kids under the age of 13. Some of our calls even come from kids as young as 8 years old. Helping your kids learn resilience when they are young may help prevent suicide and suicidal thoughts as they get older. We recommend parents work on the following three skills with their kids:
- Talking. Have them practice verbalizing feelings with an adult who will listen.
- Problem-solving. Work with your child or teen to brainstorm options for healthy solutions to problems.
- Relieving stress. Help your child to find healthy ways to cope with stress and relax.
If you know a teen who needs help, our highly-trained volunteer peer counselors are ready to lend a listening ear. Teens can call 602-248-8336 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Peer counselors answer the phones from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. daily. Adult counselors from the Crisis Response Network answer the phones at all other times. Teens can also text Teen Lifeline at 602-248-8336 from noon until 9 p.m. on weekdays or 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. on weekends.
Please remember, Teen Lifeline isn’t just a resource for kids and teens. We help parents as well. If you are worried about your child or have other suicide prevention questions, call our office at 602-248-8337 or visit teenlifeline.org
602-248-8336 (TEEN) or 1-800-248-8336 (TEEN)
A Phoenix-based crisis intervention and suicide hotline, offering help to both youth and their parents. Talk to a teenage peer counselor from 3-9 p.m. daily or text one from noon to 9 p.m. weekdays and 3-9 p.m. weekends. Adult counselors are available at all other times. Visit teenlifeline.org