ABC4 – In November 2021, the tragic news of 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor’s suicide dominated the local news cycle and garnered attention from national news outlets and celebrities alike. 12-year-old Drayke Hardman’s death — which occurred in early February and was determined a suicide — had a similar effect, rocking our communities in Utah and beyond.
Many had hoped that Tichenor’s death, though devastating, was a rarity and an outlier. Hardman’s suicide, just four months after Tichenor’s, however, suggests a larger and more overarching issue facing our youth.
Both Tichenor and Hardman’s suicides are believed to have stemmed from repetitive, incessant bullying at each student’s respective schools. Both deaths have prompted in-depth conversations about the dangers of bullying and ways to work to eliminate this behavior among Utah’s young people. But, aside from the obvious dangers of bullying, the issue of children’s mental health in general is one that experts are concerned about — and playing close attention to.
According to Scott Langenecker, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Mental Health Institute who works primarily with teens, we are approaching an end point of a upward trend in suicide numbers amongst young people aged 10-24.
“Over the last 30 years the suicide rates in this group have gone up,” he says. “In the last three or four years, in Utah specifically, those numbers have plateaued.”
Greg Hudnall, founder of Hope4Utah and Hope Squad, a Provo-based suicide awareness and prevention organization, adds that, though U.S. suicide rates actually decreased in 2020 during the pandemic, instances of depression, anxiety, and self-harm in young children increased.
So, what can the community do to address the ongoing mental health crisis and its effects on children?
Hudnall and his organization take a three-pronged approach. Two elements of this approach stem from access to resources. On a large-scale, he says — despite praising the ongoing efforts of state authorities — there are not enough mental health resources to go around.
“Right now, it’s two to three waiting lists to try to see a therapist, sometimes a month to a month and a half to see a psychiatrist,” he explains. “So you add all those pieces on to it, and it can be very overwhelming for families.”
Additionally, he says, resources can come from smaller, local organizations, too, like his own. Hope Squad — which is working with 400 schools across the state of Utah — provides students with the skills to be able to help friends and classmates who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide. Beginning community education at this level can have immense benefits, Hudnall says.
The third step, he explains, is for the community to “step up and have the courage to start talking about it.
“It’s been around us forever, but we’re afraid to talk about it because we think if we talk about it, it’s going to give someone the idea, when in reality, talking about it is the best thing that we could ever do,” he explains.
But, when we’re having these difficult conversations, especially with children, what is the best approach?
Langenecker says that, despite the urge parents and guardians might have to shield kids from the scary, unhappy parts of the world, it’s important to have an honest, open discussions when it comes to mental health and suicide.
“One of the things we know about brain development in young children is it’s more difficult for them to anticipate and predict that the future might be different than today,” he explains “And so when they get into a tough spot, emotionally or mentally, they might not see a way out.”
He says that, as the adults in their lives, it’s important to remind a child that is struggling that things will get better and that you are there to support them.
Annie Deming, a licensed psychologist and the clinical director of pediatric behavioral health for Primary Children’s Hospital, adds that, when talking to a child about mental health, it is important to validate their feelings in regular discussions about emotions.
“Everyone has times where they feel sad and down, and they have bad days. So let your child know that it’s normal to feel sad, it’s OK,” she said in a press interview conducted by the media relations team at Intermountain Healthcare. “Ask them what they’re feeling sad about, and just get into that back-and-forth conversation about what they’re experiencing.”
And, beyond individual and parental responsibility, Langenecker says that it truly takes effort from everyone to make a difference — and save a life.
“The reality is that suicide is the number one cause of death in our youth,” he says. “Talking about it, advocating for more mental health curriculum in our homes, in our religious settings, and in schools is going to go a long way in reducing youth suicide.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help can be found by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.