HomeCommunityFollowing spike in suicide rates during pandemic, Monterey Peninusula strives to support struggling individuals and families

Following spike in suicide rates during pandemic, Monterey Peninusula strives to support struggling individuals and families

Published May 10, 2024


“I tried to kill myself because I did not like my life,” shares one CHS freshman who prefers to stay anonymous. “I have been bullied my entire life, never really fit in, and my parents never really understood and expected more than I could give.”

Similar to other struggling teens, after immediate hospitalization following her suicide attempt, this teen girl felt the treatment provided when she returned home was insufficient. 

“I just came back and was sent back to school with terrible grades because I hadn’t been doing things because I was gone,” she explains. Although the student has been able to reach out for help and receive support, reintegrating into high school has been challenging. 

Mental health experts agree that growing up and entering adulthood can be a difficult experience for many young people. School, extracurriculars, friends and family can all add sadness and stress to the already challenging life of being a teen.

Veronica Searles Quick spends a lot of her time helping patients at CHOMP, in emergency psychiatry and at Ohana, supporting teens through their mental health struggles. (photo by TULLAH McCOLL)

“There’s a lot of stress in the world,” says Veronica Searles Quick, the director of crisis psychiatry for the Ohana Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health. “It’s hard going through adolescence to begin with, and then on top of that feel like you are inheriting the weight of the world.”

At the start of the pandemic, the crisis regarding suicide became more evident. From 2019 to 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a study that discovered there was an overall 30.7% increase in visits to the emergency room for mental health-related reasons among people ages 12 to 17. For many teenagers, quarantine had an immense negative impact on their mental wellbeing. Professionals found that isolation and the state of the world were causing an increase in suicidal ideation for teens across the board.

“How do we continue to educate and support families and young people regarding the topic of suicide where people don’t freeze or run away from it or push it away?” asks Victor Martinez, a licensed clinical social worker in Monterey County.

Although the topic has become less stigmatized, the rise in suicidal ideation during the pandemic has not been proven to have gone down. From 2020 to 2021, the CDC found that 22% of high school students in the United States reported having seriously considered suicide and 10% of high school students attempted suicide. The Carmel community has tried to combat this crisis by mandating suicide prevention training for all staff at Carmel High School. This training includes what to look for such as the warning signs and school protocols to get students connected with support. 

As Carmel works to help teens, the Monterey Peninsula continues to grow support systems and create more resources for people struggling with their mental health. In July 2023, a pediatric Crisis Stabilization Unit was added to CHOMP–there were previously no pediatric inpatient units in Monterey County and children had to be sent hours away for physiatric help. Searles Quick, who works closely with CSU patients, feels the new unit is a useful resource for teens who need more support and are assured safety to intervene in a potential crisis overnight. Although the emergency room is a good way for pediatric patients to have their needs addressed and met in a crisis, the CSU has provided an extra sense of safety for many people. 

“When we think about addressing a crisis, people often think about what we are doing in the emergency department or a crisis unit, when really it starts so far before that,” Searles Quick adds. 

Support systems have been added to the community through school districts and mental health organizations, in hopes of being able to acknowledge someone struggling before their problems turn into harmful thoughts or acts. 

Although the state of California does not require schools to provide mental health resources on campus, CHS has created a space for students to receive help. The CHS wellness center is a voluntary resource that gives students a way to talk about their issues confidentially. Here, therapists are limited in the ways they can address patients’ needs–however, they are able to connect students to outside providers. In a case where confidentiality has to be broken due to safety concerns, the wellness staff and caretaker of the student can choose where to go from there depending on the urgency of the situation. 

Lorena Cruz-Rodriguez, one of two therapists on the CHS campus, is able to aid teens struggling before it becomes a larger problem. 

“[The wellness center] provides an opportunity for students to talk about their needs, big or small, and hopefully address an issue that we hope does not become a bigger issue,” Cruz-Rodriguez says. 

Acknowledging the factors that actively affect teens is crucial in being able to help the problem, and social media is one of the many components negatively impacting youth.

CHS Wellness Center therapists Lorena Cruz-Rodriguez (left) and Tara Peterson hope to be able to help students struggling and intervene a potential crisis. (photo by TULLAH McCOLL)

“Social media is an attraction for younger people,” says Martinez, Montage Health Ohana’s Safe Harbor lead clinician. “With what’s being viewed, discussed and shared, there’s a lot of impulsivity and gratification that comes with that which tends to have a lot of [unintended] exposure.”

Although social platforms can have many benefits, the impact these kinds of apps can have on growing minds can be dangerous. 

“Today there is more of an acceptance and maybe normalization of young people using [substances] for a lot of different reasons,” Martinez adds. 

In addition, mental health experts say that bullying is still a common issue people tend to overlook, and as it becomes easier to victimize people anonymously over social media, it is important for people struggling to have supportive peers and adults in their lives. 

“A branch from suicide is the victimization and bullying that happens [over social media] that can have a huge negative impact on a young person,” Martinez mentions, “sometimes [causing them to] feel very isolated and alone, which can lead to people feeling the only option is suicide.”

Therapist Tara Peterson, who provides support for CHS students at the wellness center, agrees that the extensive feelings of loneliness that many teens experience can cause them to have suicidal thoughts. 

“Something that does bring people in [to the wellness center] is lack of belonging,” Peterson adds. 

CHS has created a lot of opportunities for students to feel connected. Through sports, clubs and other extracurriculars, the hope is to have all students feel accepted and welcome doing something they enjoy. 

Because Peterson is someone who sees a large population of CHS students who struggle with their mental health, she feels that although having support accessible during the school day is helpful, the struggles of being an adolescent will not just go away. 

“A lot of people, especially adolescents, just need someone to problem solve with and to hear the other perspective,” says Peterson. 

Mental health providers on the peninsula stress the importance of having local people who are willing to listen to every issue, no matter how small, because sometimes those issues can lead to a bigger problem or can even already be affecting someone who is struggling.

Professionals agree that talking about the issue of suicide has not been proven to trigger someone into having suicidal thoughts. Asking and talking about the struggle can even be a good intervention for someone struggling. In addition, they say normalizing the topic of suicide is an important factor in supporting the community. Although in many cases teens are reluctant to reach out for help for themselves or a friend due to fear, it is important for safety to be priority number one when discussing the topic of suicidal ideation. 

“Mental health is something that we expect everyone to talk about, so that if someone is struggling they are not feeling isolated and do reach out for help,” Searles Quick says. “That’s really essential and that’s the job of everybody.”

Those seeking immediate support in a mental health emergency or dealing with suicidal ideation can call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.


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