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Kansas City Star: Depression, childhood trauma, suicide. As problems soar, here’s how to help KC kids

By Andy Marso

Three years ago Gardner high school student Blake Burns fell into a deep depression.

Like many of his peers, Burns loved social media. But the weight of seeing others living what seemed like perfect lives eventually wore him down. He was dealing with a friend’s suicide and he felt like he wasn’t good enough — in school, in tennis, in anything.

“It was just the stressers and thinking that I had to be perfect constantly and that if I ever wasn’t perfect there wasn’t really a point of living. Which is a very skewed view of life,” said Burns, now 18.

Burns was hospitalized after trying to take his own life. For the first time, he got help with his mental health.

Now he’s part of a group of teens helping other kids in the Kansas City area. And there are plenty who need it.

A community health needs assessment recently completed by Children’s Mercy Hospital showed a striking rise in mental health problems for kids ages 5-17 across Jackson, Clay, Wyandotte and Johnson counties.

Among the findings:

 The percentage of kids who have been diagnosed with depression doubled in three years, from 5.5% in 2015 to 11.7% in 2018.

 The percentage of kids who have taken prescription medicines for mental health also doubled during those years, from 7.2% to 15.9%.

 The percentage of kids who stopped doing their usual activities for two or more weeks in the past year because they felt sad or hopeless more than tripled, from 3.0% to 10.7%.

Children’s Mercy officials say that a greater willingness to talk about mental health and get a diagnosis may be driving some of the increases, but can’t explain all of them.

Dr. Sarah Soden, the director of the hospital’s behavioral medicine division, said Children’s Mercy is getting an average of about 1,000 mental health referrals a month from its outpatient clinics. More striking, perhaps, is that an average of more than 100 kids a month are landing in the hospital’s emergency rooms for mental health assessments.

”These are children who maybe have expressed suicidal ideation or other sorts of urgent mental health needs,” Soden said.

Fifteen teens in Johnson County died by suicide in a 13-month span over the past year.

There are many possible reasons for the increases in mental health problems, and the extent of their influences differ from county to county. Students and Children’s Mercy staff say social media is a part of it. But the health assessment showed that there is much more going on. Childhood traumas caused by things like violence and drug use are also on the rise and financial stresses continue to weigh on low-income and even middle-income families.

Something is clearly happening, Soden said, and not just in Kansas City.

“It’s definitely a national trend,” she said. “Children’s hospitals across the country are facing this.”

The good news, she and other experts say, is that children and young adults like Burns are more willing than ever to talk openly about their mental health struggles. And adults are starting to listen.


Read the full story via the Kansas City Star

Learn more about Developmental and Behavioral Health at Children's Mercy