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Teri Helmke, Director of Employer Health Services, Health Promotion at Medica

Remembering a friend, a personal story on navigating the youth mental health crisis

March 2, 2024, at 11:50 p.m., I received a call from my daughter, Ava. As most parents can attest, late-night calls from kids cause panic.

"I'm sorry I'm calling so late. I don't want to be alone right now." As Ava tried to catch her breath, she said, "At midnight, it will be one year that I've been without my friend. I knew he was struggling and wish I would have done more to help him. I should have been a better friend."

At the age of 18, Ava had already lost three close friends. Now 19, she's lost four friends and was on scene during an active shooting. During the shooting, she was separated from her friends. I tried to calm her via telephone while she hid under a car for 45 minutes.

It's hard to know how to support her. I tell her that I wish I could take her pain away.

Before the pandemic, there were soaring mental health issues in our nation with limited resources to meet the needs. The pandemic has allowed us to more openly discuss mental health. However, there is much to be done to address youth mental health. The toll of lockdowns, social isolation, and uncertainty has left an imprint on young minds that we cannot underestimate – no matter how much we want things to be “normal.”

COVID's Impact on Youth Mental Health

For many young people, the pandemic marked a period of upheaval -- disrupted routines, loss of social connections, and uncertainty around future plans. The abrupt transition to remote learning, coupled with the loss of important milestones like graduations, , and proms, fostered feelings of grief, anxiety, and loneliness. Moreover, economic hardships within families added another layer of stress for some.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 6 kids ages six to 17 in the U.S. experience a mental health disorder. Even more troubling, suicide remains the second-leading cause of death among all U.S. children ages 10 to 14.

Challenges for youth and families today

While the return to normalcy (what's really normal?) has occurred, the effects of the pandemic on youth mental health persist. In-person activities may still trigger social anxiety, youth continue to struggle with the pressure to “catch up” academically or socially.

Breaking the Stigma: Fostering Open Dialogue

Now more than ever, it's vital to create avenues for young people to discuss their mental health struggles without fear of judgment or stigma. Encouraging open dialogue within families, schools, and communities can help break down barriers and normalize seeking support.

One of the ways we can do that is by investing in accessible and comprehensive mental health resources that support kids. Schools can play a crucial role by providing counseling services, peer support groups, and mental health education programs. Additionally, community organizations and ”back to the basics” activities offer valuable resources for young people and families to cope with stress, build resilience, and seek professional help when needed.

But there's so much more that needs to be done.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting the needs of our children. While there's a heavy reliance on support coming from parents and teachers, anyone in the community can play a support role through charitable contributions, volunteerism, and innovative programs that help ease the challenges.

Here at Medica, we distributed mental health toolkits in late 2023 to the nearly 50 school districts Dean Health Plan by Medica and Prevea360 insure in southern and northeast Wisconsin. This initiative reached more than 200,000 staff, students, and their families.

The toolkits offer tangible resources for students from K-12 and district employees and include 10,000 “I Choose to Stay” bracelet kits. The bracelet kits were created by health plan members Sherry and Steve Maass in memory of their son, Eli, who died by suicide at age 24. The kits contain a 988 card with warning signs and guidance on how to support a person contemplating suicide as well as a bracelet with the wording “I Choose to Stay.” “Every package I assemble is like sending out of piece of my son's spirit to touch someone who needs it,” Sherry said.

Moving Forward Together

As we navigate the uncertain terrain of post-pandemic life, let's prioritize the mental health and well-being of our youth. Continue to seek out opportunities to connect and understand the needs of our communities. In Sherry's words, “You see, down at the core of our lives here on earth we are all just human beings. The most important thing that one human can do for another is care. I feel we are all connected by a thread. It can be weak at times, strong at times, but there always. What we decide to pass along to one another is a choice.”

Together, we can create a brighter and more hopeful future for the next generation.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.