Keep paying attention to your kids' mental health in this pandemic

Keep a watchful eye on kids right now, experts say. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's #Be the 1 To campaign shares five steps every person can take to help prevent suicide in a person of any age.

Lisa Selin Davis is the author of "Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different." She has written for The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and many other publications.

(CNN)For nearly a year, most of our children have been navigating the new, difficult normal: social isolation; deeply stressed parents; the effects of financial uncertainty; school from home — or from WiFi-equipped school buses if they don't have internet.

While Covid-19 itself has largely been sparing of children's physical health, studies have shown it has taken a toll on their mental health, associated with an increase in suicide-related behaviors, experts say.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death among children and adolescents ages 10 to 19 in the United States as of 2018, before the pandemic struck. Though suicide attempts and ideation weren't consistently higher in 2020, a recent prepublication, peer-reviewed article in the journal Pediatrics found some increases.
    "Months with significantly higher rates of suicide-related behaviors appear to correspond to times when COVID-related stressors and community responses were heightened, indicating that youth experienced elevated distress during these periods," the report, which looked at people between the ages of 11 and 21, noted.
      According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), the most recent completed month, December 2020, shows a 4% increase in NSPL call volume from December 2019, though not all months during the pandemic showed increases.
        "Adolescents are very peer-focused under ordinary circumstances," said Lisa Furst, chief program officer of Vibrant Emotional Health, which, among other things, runs the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. "The nature of the public health measures such as remote school and physical distancing may impact teens and youth very significantly because they feel so isolated from their peer group."
        Much needs to be done at the national and policy level to help kids, such as making therapy affordable and readily available and improving access to providers, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there are preventive measures parents and guardians can take, both immediate and longer-term, for kids who are seemingly faring OK or those in crisis.

          Reducing access to 'lethal means'

          "One of the ways to prevent pediatric suicide attempts is to keep your medications locked away," said Dr. Julie Williamson, associate professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at Emory University in Atlanta. "For adolescents, suicide is often extremely impulsive and not pre-planned, so even small barriers can keep catastrophes from happening."
          Parents should invest in a lockbox, and not just for potentially fatal prescription drugs, Williamson suggested. "Attain a lockbox for even nonprescription medications like Tylenol," she said. That will also help guard against accidental overdose. "For smaller children, it will keep them from accidentally taking pills or medications that look like candy."
          The same goes for other potentially harmful objects, especially if kids are in distress. Sharp objects should be hidden or stored in a place where only adults can get to them.
          "If there's a gun in the house, get rid of it for a while," Furst said.