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Boys Town National Hotline report shows increase in teens seeking help because of suicidal thoughts

Star-Herald - 5/14/2017

Boys Town National Hotline says more teenagers are reaching out for help - most commonly because of suicidal thoughts, but also for depression and anxiety.

According to a national report released this week by Boys Town, the number of teens contacting the hotline for mental anguish increased 12 percent from 2012 to 2016. The report analyzed calls, texts, instant messages and emails to the hotline during those five years.

Though the report didn't look at the reasons behind the rise, Dr. Dan Daly, a child psychologist at Boys Town, said he suspects it has to do with the increased awareness of suicide along with added pressure on teens and feelings of isolation caused by technology.

"The Internet and social media is a great place for knowledge, but not for problem-solving or coping skills," Daly said.

Daly also said that in the aftermath of high-profile suicides and stories of suicide - like the recent Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" - calls to the hotline can increase.

"Combine this with the fact that the country is on edge and add in family stressors that can further eat away at quality family time," Daly said. "There's no question these things add up and can make children feel isolated."

Ginny Gohr, the director of the Boys Town National Hotline, said that although the report can't give all the "whys," the findings are "alarming."

More than 3,500 teenagers who contacted the hotline in 2016 reported thoughts of suicide. That's more than one-fourth of all the contacts the hotline received last year and marks an 8 percent jump from 2012.

About a fifth of teens contacting the hotline in 2016 reported anxiety - a 24 percent jump from five years before.

At the same time, teens reporting problems with relationships in 2016 dropped 51 percent.

Julia Hebenstreit, executive director of the Kim Foundation - an Omaha organization that aims to educate the community on mental health and suicide prevention - said the increases in teens contacting the hotline also can be seen as a positive.

"These numbers mean more teenagers are reaching out," Hebenstreit said.

The Boys Town report reflects what Hebenstreit said she has seen in the Kim Foundation's work as well - teens are becoming more comfortable talking about suicide.

"I think that shows education and awareness efforts are working," she said. "Though we are years behind where we should be, I think people are starting to realize these are conversations we need to have."

Gohr said she expects future reports will show an even larger rise in teens contacting the hotline - in part because of a paradox caused by teens' increased use of technology.

As more teenagers feel isolated because of texting, cyberbullying and social media, they also look to avenues such as texting to reach out for help, Gohr said.

The Boys Town hotline added a texting option in 2014, and thousands of teens have used it. Gohr said if someone expresses suicidal thoughts over text or instant message, counselors will work to transfer the conversation to a phone call.

Barb Jessing, clinical director at Project Harmony, said getting help to teenagers takes a "21st century understanding of how young people communicate."

"We have to ask, 'How can we use some of the same channels that make kids feel isolated to make them understand they have access to help?' " Jessing said.

The next question, Jessing said, is "What's going on in teenagers' lives that's pushing them to these emotional extremes?"

The hotline will continue to find ways to make teenagers feel comfortable seeking help, Gohr said.

"In every way we can, we continue to work to send the message that suicide is not an answer and that there are always people to help."

mara.klecker@owh.com, 402-444-1276

 
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