Suicide Prevention: America’s Mental Health Crisis

José López Zamorano | La Red Hispana 
Photo Credit: Fernando @cferdophotography / Unsplash

It is natural that the epidemic of addiction to fentanyl-derived drugs should occupy our attention. More than 70,000 overdose deaths a year qualify as a public health emergency anywhere in the world.

But there is another public health crisis before our eyes: a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) documents that visits to the emergency room for attempted suicide among adolescents and young adults have increased fivefold, going from 0.9% in 2011 to 4.2% in 2020.

This worrying increase occurred between 2011 and 2020, that is, before and during the COVID pandemic, which exacerbated the problems of depression, loneliness, anxiety and stress.

Of course, the reasons for this increase are varied and include behavioral disorders, psychosis, and substance abuse, a fact that directly connects the fentanyl abuse crisis with a broader psychosocial problem.

But hospital emergency rooms are probably the least appropriate place to deal with a medical problem that requires personalized attention, which is why JAMA recommends an urgent response to the national government to increase psychological crisis care services.

This approach is essential if we consider that two out of 10 Latino families lack access to health coverage, so it is logical to think that hundreds of thousands of young Latina/os do not have the option of going to an emergency room, one of the most expensive health care options in the United States.

According to a recent New York Times investigation, hundreds of teens and young adults who have attempted suicide are sleeping in emergency rooms across the country hoping to receive some form of medical attention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented that suicide rates nationwide were stable between 2000 and 2007, but jumped nearly 60% by 2018. One year later, 13% of all teens reported having had an episode of major depressive disorder, an increase of more than 50% compared to 2007.

All of us parents are likely to be concerned if we see our young children spending too many hours in front of their electronic devices, cut off from the personal socialization of our generation.

Although each case is different, it is important to share these concerns with a doctor or expert, if we believe that this feeling of isolation covers up a larger problem. Waiting for a crisis to break out may be too late.

It now remains to be seen whether the recommendations of the investigative arm of JAMA will be heeded at the highest levels of the federal government. The trend is alarming and calls for an unprecedented institutional commitment to find structural solutions to serve these new generations who are the future of the United States.