KDKA: Teen mental health is getting new attention

Photo above by Anthony Tran used by permission via Unsplash.

Parents’ biggest worries about teenagers used to be about teenage drunk driving, teen pregnancy and smoking. But while those have fallen sharply, there’s a new concern – teen mental health problems.

The U. S. surgeon general warns there’s a devastating mental health crisis among adolescents. Local teens can attest to that: For Brooke Kramer and Andrew Butch, the pandemic was more than difficult — it took a toll on their mental health.

Brooke was a student at Upper St. Clair High School when the pandemic started, and she suffered anxiety attacks two to three times a week. She described her experiences this way to KDKA’s Kristine Sorensen: “Shortness of breath. I was crying. It literally felt like I was just done and over with,” Brooke said.  “Anybody that’s ever had a panic or anxiety attack, it feels like you’re gonna die.”

Andrew, who’s a student at Central Catholic High School, suffered depression after the pandemic isolated him from his friends and much of his family to the point he thought about suicide.

“There was no point for me to get up and do anything really. I had no incentive. I had no reason to do anything and I just kind of (became) a recluse,” he told Sorensen.  “I would just think about stuff. I don’t know.  I would just end up in a dark place kind of, and I just didn’t want to be in that place anymore.”

Andrew and Brooke both say the talk therapy at Outreach Teen and Family Services in Mount Lebanon helped them manage their mental health problems. Tracy Scanlon, clinical director at Outreach Teen and Family Services, says calls for assistance dramatically increased during the pandemic.

“I think parents got really aware, suddenly, of how fragile their teenagers might actually be,” Scanlon said. “Because I think in our culture, what we typically say is ‘Kids are resilient. Kids are resilient,’ and their resilience was really tested.”

In 2019, before the pandemic had begun, 13% of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode – up by 60% since 2007. Fortunately, the pandemic actually helped reduce the stigma around mental health struggles.

“Me and my friends, I feel like we’re more comfortable with each other,” Andrew said. “I would say we’re more open about how we’re feeling and that’s a really good feeling.”

Brooke agrees: “At the end of the day, we need to help each other through tough times. … You shouldn’t have to feel alone in your own mental health.”

Scanlon sees this acceptance happening among adults as well. “Suddenly, the adults around us seem to be more willing to recognize that everybody isn’t supposed to just be able to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and move on,” she said.

The hope is more people will view mental health in the same way they view physical health — with no shame around getting treatment.  Andrew encourages other teenagers, children or anyone facing depression or other mental health challenges to seek help.

“Even if it’s hard,” he said, “the only way you’re gonna get through it is if you accept the fact that you’re depressed and you do have these mental health issues and recognize that you do need help.”

Here are some signs parents can look for when it’s time to get professional help: Look for isolation, withdrawal, pulling away from friends, more crying or more emoting than normal. If this goes on for three or four weeks, ask for help. You can get it at Outreach or other professional counseling services or you can start with your pediatrician or school counselor.

Check out Kidsburgh’s Mental Health Guide for more information on the many resources and places to get professional help in the Pittsburgh region.