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Knox County Data on Teen Depression, Suicide Is 'Screaming' for Community's Attention

One in three Knox County public high school students said they felt sad and hopeless for two weeks in a row or more — enough to stop their normal activities — at least once last year.

Eleven percent — or about one in nine children — said they tried to kill themselves.

That data, part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey released this month by Knox County Health Department, is "screaming to get our attention," said Ben Harrington, director of the nonprofit Mental Health Association of East Tennessee. "If kids are experiencing mental health issues, then we need to, as a community, respond. That means we should be doing more to intervene earlier with kids in our community, and the community needs to be prepared to help."

The Mental Health Association, which is funded by grants and donations, already takes its "Mental Health 101" series to more than 90 middle and high schools throughout East Tennessee, and it hopes to top 100 this school year.

But Harrington said parents, in particular, need to be at least as proactive as the schools.

"Really, a third," or 35.9 percent of children experiencing extreme sadness and hopelessness for two weeks or more, is "a hard number to fathom," Harrington said. And it's up from the last YRBS, in 2013, which found just more than a quarter of students felt that way.


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'Typical or Troubled' teens?

Earlier this fall, at the request of the Parent-Teacher-Student Organization, the Mental Health Association adapted a program — originally designed to train teachers — for parents and presented it at Farragut High School, where three students committed suicide in the past year. Harrington said he'd love to do the same for other parent and community groups.

That program — "Typical or Troubled?" — addresses possible signs of mental health issues and urges parents to take note of their children's "normal" and notice and react if there's a major deviation: a change in personality, in the friends they normally spend time with, in their interests or beliefs.

The teenage years can be fraught with moodiness and changes in body chemistry. But they can also be when mental health issues start to show up, Harrington said: About half of people later diagnosed with mental health issues show signs by age 14, about three-quarters by age 24. So the middle- and high-school years are "prime time" for intervention, he said.

"The typical teen is a stressed teen — that’s the new normal; they're all stressed about something," Harrington said. "One of the issues we wonder about here is, are kids answering 'yes' to this question who are really just dealing with some stressors in their lives? Are they confusing stress with depression, or do they know what they’re talking about? ... Our concern is, any teenager who is struggling with acute stressors is probably not going to cope well with those stressors, nor are they going to handle the onset of depression well. Because … they’re teens. They’re not adults who can cope with lots and lots and lots of stuff."

19 percent bullied

One such stressor could be bullying. Nineteen percent of students who answered the survey said they'd been bullied at least once on school property in the past year. Nearly 17 percent said they'd been bullied electronically, usually through texts and social media.

Besides Mental Health 101, Knox County Schools has other initiatives to address issues that have shown up in the survey, said Melissa Massie, the school system's director of student support services. One program, Project U, teaches middle-school students leadership skills, including a proactive stance against bullying. Massie said high schools will have leadership programs later this month, after fall break.

"Schools are a reflection of what society is, and there are a lot of stressors in our nation right now," Massie said. "We're trying to make sure we're addressing and supporting concerns."

Drug use, abuse

The school system also is hosting joint programs addressing drug abuse and addiction — a screening of the short documentary "Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict," followed by a presentation and question-answer session with a panel. Events are scheduled from 6-8 p.m. Oct. 25 at Fulton High School and Oct. 26 at Halls High School.

More: Graphic film, discussion aim to open conversation between parents, teens about opioid abuse

First Watch Daytime Cafes to accept donations for TN peer-led depression/bipolar group

One in eight students surveyed said they'd used prescription pain medications without a doctor's prescription, more than 20 percent said they'd used marijuana within the past month, and more than 7 percent said they'd used synthetic marijuana products at least once.

More than a quarter said they'd had at least one drink of alcohol within the past month, and more than 13 percent — about one in eight students — reported "binge drinking" (five or more drinks in a row for boys, four or more for girls) within the past month. Nearly half — 45.6 percent — said someone gave them alcohol, 18 percent gave someone money to buy it for them, and 13 percent took it from a store or family member.

Better in some areas

Not all the information from the survey, given March 6-7 of this year in all Knox County Schools high schools, was bad. It showed, for example, a quarter of teens text-messaged while driving — a decline of more than 40 percent since 2011. More than 93 percent reported they usually wore seat belts.

In 2005, more than 50 percent of students had ever smoked a cigarette; this year, 26 percent said they had. Fewer than 9 percent said they were regular smokers, down from 18 percent in 2013. That said, more than 30 percent said they'd used an electronic "vaping" product — nearly 15 percent during the past month.

More: Read the entire 2017 Knox County Youth Risk Behavior Survey

Harrington said teens' drinking or drug use could be self-medicating. Massie said Knox County Schools is training counselors how to identify and help students deal with stressors, and Harrington said some surrounding counties have "embedded" mental health professionals in schools. That cuts down on problems with transportation and stigma in small towns where there's only one mental-health center, usually in a visible place, he said. An Oct. 5 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found suicide rates in rural areas are consistently higher.

Harrington told parents to "trust your instincts" and call the Mental Health Association, 865-584-9125, if they think their children should talk to a mental health professional.

Regardless of geographic location, income or whether they have health insurance, he said, "We can find them a place."

How to get help

Parents may call the Mental Health Association, 865-584-9125, if they think their children should talk to a mental health professional.

The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network encourages anyone who is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The free, 24-hour hotline can connect callers with the nearest crisis center.

Alternately, those in crisis can text TN to 741741 to connect with a trained counselor

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