More youngsters than ever are exhibiting suicidal tendencies and parents must be vigilant about red flags, say mental health experts in the UAE.
The warning comes after a teen in Sharjah ended his life following an argument with his parent.
"Teenagers are more prone and vulnerable to mental health difficulties during their adolescent years," said Nardeen Turjman, a clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center.
"They are transitioning from one state into another in various areas in their life. During this time, teenagers often have to work through different challenges, such as self-esteem, identity, increasing independence, relationships, responsibilities, academics, as well as psychological and physical developments."
Global research has shown that mental health issues and suicidal tendencies among youngsters have increased since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Centre for Disease Control in America, teenage emergency room visits for suicide attempts increased by 50 per cent among females and almost 4 per cent among males during this period.
According to Dr CB Binu, a specialist child and adult psychiatrist at Al Fasht Medical Centre in Sharjah, there are several reasons why the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues.
"Stressful life events, extended home confinement, brutal grief, intrafamilial violence, overuse of the Internet and social media are factors that have influenced the mental health of adolescents during this traumatic period," he said.
"This is resulting in increased psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress, depressive disorders, suicidality and anxiety disorders, as well as grief-related symptoms. Adolescents with pre-existing psychiatric disorders are at greater risk of relapses."
"The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown may have an enduring negative impact on the mental health of adolescents, although there is still no data on the long term impact of this crisis."
There are several causes of mental health issues in adolescents.
"Undiagnosed or partially treated psychiatric disorders such as major depressive, bipolar, substance use and conduct disorders as well as psychiatric comorbidity, especially the combination of mood, disruptive and substance abuse disorders can make an impact," said Dr Binu.
"A history of physical or sexual abuse and exposure to violence or bullying can also have a significant effect on the mental health of adolescents," said Turjman. "As does loss, conflict, being a minority or having a family history of suicidal behaviour."
Another factor contributing significantly to the declining mental health is a breakdown of family relationships, according to Dr Mohamed Abdelbadie Ismail, a specialist psychiatrist at Burjeel Royal Hospital in Al Ain.
"Problems between a father and mother can affect teenagers," he said. "They feel unsafe and insecure. For them, family is most important, and parents are their pillars of strength. When children feel they are not supported by family or they are not putting children as their priority, they feel upset."
"Also, parents should understand that youngsters often mirror their behaviour," Dr Ismail elaborated. "Parents' behaviour influences children. Them displaying behaviours of anger or violence and practising self-harming behaviours like smoking or not eating because of a fight will make the children mimic it too."
According to the experts, youth suicide can be prevented by looking out for the signs.
"Four out of five suicide deaths are preceded by warning signs such as suicidal threats, previous suicide attempts, preoccupation or obsession with death, depression, and final arrangements," said Dr Binu.
"Sudden social withdrawal and decrease in engagement and interaction with family members are two of the major red flags," said Charlotte Schultz, a counsellor at Plumm Health. "This can be difficult for parents to notice because teenagers generally become socially withdrawn at this age."
"Sudden mood swings and going from being extremely happy to feeling extremely low are also indicators that something is going on. In addition, being self-destructive and doing things that are dangerous, risky and out of the ordinary are signs that parents should take note of."
"Saying goodbye to people as if they won't be seeing each other and giving away personal belonging and getting affairs in order for no reason, like giving a pet to a friend to care for, can also be telling signs," said Turjman.
"It is important to note that we often only see the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg below can be more severe emotions. Friends and family would be able to recognize some of the changes the teenager is experiencing."
According to Turjman, a mistake most parents make is to think that teenagers are "just doing it for the attention".
"Seeing warning signs as serious rather than "attention-seeking" can be very helpful for the teenagers," she said. "Though it can be difficult for parents to open the sensitive topic with a teenager, it is always a good idea to ask the child directly. Trying to communicate openly with the teenager and expressing the love, support, and concern."
Dr Ismail echoes the same advice.
"Create a protective atmosphere in the family. Better to listen to them than to talk to them. They are growing. They are getting a lot of information through different methods. It makes them more complex."
Dr Binu advocates improving access to mental health resources.
"Examples of this include medical interventions and support groups, effective clinical care for mental disorders and family and community support," he said.
"Adolescents are often vulnerable and require careful consideration by caregivers and healthcare systems to allow for greater mental health support. Family has a major role in positive and negative outcomes for adolescents in times of crisis."
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