“If people don’t know when someone needs help, how can they get help?” That was the question of Christopher Thomas, co-founder of The defensive linea nonprofit that aims to end suicide by young people, especially youth of color, House lawmakers urged Thursday.
During a subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that focused on the growing number of mental health issues among young people during the pandemic, Thomas shared the story of his daughter, Ella Elizabeth, who died by suicide aged 24 in 2018. About a week before taking her own life, Ella asked her father to take care of her dog, Mickey. What Thomas didn’t know then was that giving away valuable possessions is a warning sign among people considering suicide.
An estimated 125 million Americans struggle with mental health issues, noted Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), chair of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. And in 2020, mental health-related emergency room visits for children increased by 24% for children aged 5 to 11 and by 31% for those aged 12 to 17, according to the CDC.
Awareness and connection
Every week, 119 young people die by suicide, roughly the number of people in a Boeing 737, Thomas said.
“I have to believe that if a plane went down every week in America, Congress … would work together and create immediate solutions to fix the problem. Let’s do this for suicide prevention,” he said.
Recognizing the warning signs and knowing how to have “difficult conversations” can prevent suicides and save lives, he added.
Thomas created The Defensive Line with his wife, Martha, and son, Solomon, a football player for the Los Angeles Raiders.
One solution Thomas strongly believes in is establishing a mandatory, standardized, funded K-12 suicide prevention program in schools — a program that would require annual certification for educators. The organization already helps train teachers and coaches in Dallas and Las Vegas, and plans are underway to launch a third training program in Nashville, he said.
Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) shared that he and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) introduced the “stand-up act“, with the aim of “encouraging[ing] schools to implement suicide prevention training for students. passed before the Chamber in May 2021, but has not yet been approved by the Senate.
Dark Patterns and Suicide Websites
Another important theme from the hearing was the influence of social media on youth mental health.
Rep. Kim Schrier, MD, (D-Wash.) noted that while social media can help reduce feelings of isolation, algorithms on platforms like Facebook can lead children and teens down a “rabbit hole.” “dangerous content.
For example, a girl interested in healthy eating might find herself exposed to harmful content focused on eating disorders, Schrier noted. And “kids feeling sad, as we’ve heard, could find themselves channeled into discussions that glorify suicide or self-harm.”
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) pointed out that her bill, “The DETOUR law,“may be one way to address these issues by banning ‘dark patterns,’ which she defined as “design practices that manipulate people, often children, into using social media platforms compulsively. “.
“Social media alone does not cause mental illness in adolescents,” said Jacqueline Nesi, PhD, a psychiatrist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and a witness in the hearing. Social media has benefits but also risks, she said. “Further research is urgently needed to determine exactly how, when and for whom social media is more harmful than helpful.”
Nesi also suggested that parents can help by setting limits on the times of day or where children can use their phones, or by restricting access to certain content or activities, all with the aim of reducing the risk of exposure to harmful content.
Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) focused on one particular danger: “online suicide instruction forums.”
She mentioned the story of Demetrios James Viglis, who first attempted suicide when he was 14 years old. Mary-Ellen Viglis, his mother, shared Demetrios’ story with Trahan.
After the pandemic hit, Demetrios, then 19, lost his job and his support group meetings were canceled, Trahan said.
“The isolation became too strong. He discovered a website that encouraged suicide, and provided information and access to methods. There he discovered a poison, popularized by the website, and where he could l buy, which he did easily on Amazon. . Shortly after the package arrived, he committed suicide,” Trahan said.
Trahan said she and Rep. David McKinley (RW.Va.) lead investigation in these forums, and she encouraged her colleagues to join in their efforts.
Masks and mental health
Some Republican lawmakers at the hearing blamed the government’s response to COVID-19 for increasing youth mental health issues.
“Closures and closings of schools, in particular, have been associated with adverse mental health symptoms,” said Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), ranking member of the subcommittee.
“While it may have been wise to implement some policies early in COVID-19,” Griffith said, “many of them have been unnecessarily extended.”
Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the ranking member of the full committee, took aim at the masking.
Coronavirus ‘poses very little risk to children’, but ‘forced masking undermines benefits of being in the classroom [and] can no longer be a requirement for in-person learning,” she argued. (Many experts would disagree with the risk characterization of COVID-19 in children.)
The European CDC and World Health Organization do not recommend masks for young children in school, but the CDC here continues to call for universal masking in schools, McMorris Rodgers said.
She said that when CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, was asked about mask wearing in schools, she cited a “flawed Arizona study three times,” McMorris said, suggesting the director’s commitment to masks may have been influenced by her “corrupt relationship with Randi Weingarten and the teachers’ unions.” Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of teachers.
Elinore McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and former assistant secretary for mental health and addiction in the Trump administration, agreed that the Arizona study had “some major methodological issues,” including a mismatch in observation periods between schools and a lack of consideration for vaccination rates among students and staff. She added that “it is concerning” that the CDC is “bragging about this study” when another study of 90,000 children in Georgia found that “masks were not a significant factor in COVID outbreaks in these schools”.
Other witnesses, however, pointed out that no single factor is responsible for the increase in mental health problems among children.
And while no one liked being isolated, said Lisa Fortuna, MD, MPH, vice president of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, “there was so much more…loss, people are truly grappling with already pre-existing mental health needs, economic devastation in disenfranchised communities.”
“It’s just very multifactorial,” Fortuna said. “We have to look at it holistically.”