What comes to mind when you think about being “healthy?”

Just a year or two ago, you might have said exercising regularly, jogging a 5K with hundreds of people for charity, dieting, cutting out sweets or eating reasonably portioned meals.

Be aware, make a difference

Noah King

During the pandemic, maybe things have changed. You isolate yourself, religiously scrub your hands and wear masks. When thinking of health — whether it is our own or others' — we regularly overlook one of the most important aspects, which is mental health. Mental health has a profound impact on our overall health, our daily life, long-term aspects of life and the lives of those around us.

As a physician, it is my passion, my honor and my privilege to care for all aspects of my patients’ health. As a pediatrician, it is my responsibility to notice trends in health care and anticipate needs of the pediatric population. What if I told you our young population has been dealing with a worsening mental health pandemic for decades, only to have it acutely worsened with social isolation?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and their Clinical Guidelines for Mental Health prevention, diagnosis and treatment, between 15% to 20% of U.S. children and adolescents experience mental health conditions. For reference, suicide rates are now the second leading cause of death in teenagers. Hospital admissions and emergency room visits for suicide attempts doubled at children's hospitals during the last 15 years.

For various reasons, including stigma, shortages of providers, health insurance issues, cost, and more, an estimated 75% of children with mental health disorders go untreated. According to these studies, adults who had untreated mental health illness as children are six times more likely to suffer from health, social, legal or financial hardships than those who did not have mental health conditions as a child.

Adolescents are a special population dealing with the struggles of schooling, societal expectations, peer pressures and pubertal changes, just to name a few. As a pediatrician, I have witnessed firsthand mental health struggles that have impacted relationships, schoolwork, social activities, athletics, and have led to hospitalizations and lives lost.

According to an article written by the AAP and the Children’s Hospital Association, “the pandemic, with social isolation, limited access to school, friends and other support systems, leading to an increase of nearly 20% in mental health emergency department visits, hospitalizations and suicide attempts.” While the pandemic has significantly worsened the mental health struggles in our adolescent society, I will be the first person to tell you that lives have been impacted and lost to this disease far before you first heard the word “coronavirus.”

Mental health disease covers a wide spectrum of illnesses including depression, self-harm, anxiety, substance abuse, ADHD, along with many more conditions. Common symptoms to watch for include depressed mood or sadness, loss of pleasure or interest in doing things, thoughts of the “world being a better place without me,” poor sleep or increased sleep, fatigue, lack of concentration and poor grades.

Adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer pressure, especially when it comes to substance abuse, high-risk sexual activities, etc. Keep an eye out for any changes in behaviors, such as spending more time with questionable friends, lying, deceiving, stealing, missing school or changes in how unsupervised free time may be spent.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which is dedicated to bringing awareness to the struggle individuals have with depression, anxiety, suicidality and other mental health conditions. From someone who sees these struggles daily, here is my PSA: talk to your children, talk to your family members, your students, your classmates and neighbors. Listen to their thoughts without judgment. Ask questions. Do not let anyone suffer in silence. Spread awareness, improve lives, save lives. Mental health disease is far more common than you can imagine. Be aware and make a difference.

Dr. Noah King of Harrisburg in Saline County is a Rural Illinois Medical Student Assistance Program (RIMSAP) participant. He is completing his residency in pediatrics in Lexington, Kentucky. For more information on the RIMSAP program, visit rimsap.com.