DIGGING DEEPER: More self harm seen among Central Illinois youth amid COVID

May 26, 2021
Digging Deeper on 25 News
Digging Deeper on 25 News(25 News)
Published: Oct. 27, 2021 at 1:11 PM CDT
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PEORIA (25 NEWS) - Central Illinois emergency rooms are seeing more young people in crisis during this 2020-21 age of isolation.

They’re turning to destructive methods that often result in either more attention or actual self harm.

One doctor tells 25News that age range continues to skew young.

“We are, unfortunately seeing a lot of teenagers that are ingesting Tylenol, ibuprofen, you know, household medications on purpose,” said Dr. Jennifer Roberts in Emergency Medicine at UnityPoint Pekin. “Yeah, unfortunately it’s starting a little bit earlier. So, I’d say even junior high age through the end of high school. Sometimes it’ll be 10 pills and sometimes they’ll take an entire bottle.”

Dr. Roberts says those signs are taken by nurses and doctors as an attempted suicide, which results in a mandatory stay in the intensive care unit.

“It can last in your body a long time. You may need dialysis. You may need other specialties as well if you have organ failure from those medicines. They’re actually very serious even though they’re over the counter.”

They also then order a full behavioral health assessment.

Since Jan. 1, 2021 to mid-May, among kids ages 4 to 17, UnityPoint Health charted a 67% spike in these evaluations ordered in the emergency room. 60% are girls, 40% boys.

Young people shouldn’t be suffering like this

At the federal level, beginning in April 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the proportion of children’s mental health–related emergency room visits among all pediatric visits increased and remained elevated through October.

Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health–related visits for children aged 5 to 17 years increased approximately 27%. The CDC also lists suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. But for ages 10 to 34, it’s the second leading cause of death.

“This is nothing that should be happening to these age groups or children in general. So, the fact that there’s an increase at all needs an intervention,” Dr. Roberts said.

A prominent psychologist in this area would agree.

“The tsunami of mental health problems, I think is coming at us really fast, and it’s going to continue to escalate,” said Dr. Ted Bender, President of UnityPlace, formed in 2019 in a merger with the Human Service Center and Tazwood Center for Wellness.

He feels many of these issues have demanded attention for years.

“But still raging below the surface is a mental health crisis that was already there, getting worse. An overdose epidemic that was already there, getting worse. And what COVID-19 has really done is pour gasoline onto the camp fire of a problem that was already burning. Mental health crises are on the rise for most people, but in the 4 to 17 age group as well, which is particularly concerning,” Bender said.

He is following national trends with as high as 30% more depressive disorders diagnosed now in America and expects at least a 10% increase in opioid overdose deaths to be reported this summer.

“People are very, very good at hiding this stuff,” Bender said, adding that parents should look for a change in behaviors.

He also advises parents reconsider where pain relievers and prescription medicines are being kept and to find a place that’s not easy to access, perhaps even one that is locked.

Beyond that, put the devices down and interact with your family and friends.

Communication is key

He also addressed what he calls “the myth” that talking about self harm or death by suicide encourages that behavior in others.

“But nothing could be further from the truth. No research supports that. In fact, there’s a lot of research out there that supports asking about it actually, not only is it not harmful but it’s helpful.” Bender said.

In Peoria County, recent months did bring an increase in death by suicide among a younger age group.

In 2020, 7 males and 1 female died in the 0 to 29 age group, the vast majority in the older section, age 19 to 29.

Peoria County saw only 1 suicide in the 0 to 18 age bracket, a single female in 2020.

As for the previous two years, there were 3 suicides (2 males, 1 female) in 2019 and 4 (all males) in 2018, again, all in the 19-29 age range.

“Hopelessness. There’s nothing else to garnish from that…in my opinion,” said Jamie Harwood, Peoria County Coroner.

And while the numbers show overdose deaths did not change significantly during this time period, the highest concentration of deaths by suicide last year were found among the poorest sections of the city; in the 61603, 61604 and 61605 zip codes.

Harwood sees a need for interventions

“It’s not a handout. It’s a hand up to help them with their helplessness and their hopelessness.”

Recovering substance user speaks out

On the street, there is more trouble as one recovering substance user says the drugs people often turn to now are stronger.

“I was literally chasing traffic cones, stop signs and traffic lights thinking they were my friends,” said Angell Price of an especially bad experience on methamphetamine. “I said, ‘I’m done using.’ "

Price moved to Peoria in October, 2015.

Now 27, he had tried to kick his meth habit before COVID-19 further reduced his options.

At one point in June of 2020, he was living under the Murray Baker Bridge in Peoria, near the Riverplex.

He reached out to a familiar face for help, through a community volunteer who brought him, his boyfriend, and another friend lunch.

Price says that meal is what turned it all around for him. He says he’s been clean for 11 months now

“Whew. It’s awesome!” Price said.

He now works at the same organization he credits with saving him, the Jolt Foundation in Peoria.

His saddest moments though come when previously clean teenagers come to him, now looking to get high.

“And I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Why are you asking me for this?’ They tell me, ‘I just can’t take it anymore. I’m being driven crazy’. And, I think, it has a lot to do with the fact that we were all stuck in our houses for a long time,” Price said.


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