From Santa to suicide: Addressing the youth mental health crisis in America

Do you know the average age kids stop believing in Santa? It is 8.4 years of age, and it has not changed much over the last 50 years. I read this statistic recently when I was waiting in a doctor's office and found an old holiday issue of "Good Housekeeping."

I remember thinking at the time that the joy of Santa may be one of the few things that children growing up today have in common with those of past generations.

I was recently talking to a school social worker from an affluent western suburb which always seems to make the list of "Best places to live in America." We were discussing the success of NAMI DuPage's new mental health programs for fifth-graders in her school, when I mentioned that NAMI DuPage had begun programs for high school students more than a decade ago and has gradually been adding age-appropriate programs for lower grades.

She then matter-of-factly stated that she was working with a suicidal third-grader.

My thoughts raced back to the magazine article. Aren't third-graders 8 years old? How does a child go from "visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads" to the darkest thoughts imaginable? The data shows that this third-grader is not an anomaly; in fact, suicide has become the second leading cause of death for children aged 10-14.

And an estimated 9% of high school students have attempted suicide.

We cannot point to just one cause for skyrocketing rates of mental illness, particularly among our youth. Certainly, the pandemic was a huge factor as is social media/screens, bullying, childhood traumas, loss, and isolation. In many cases, biology, genetics, and chemistry play a major role. Perhaps the most frequent common denominator in many cases is stress - stress about school, grades, social pressure, athletics, appearance; the list is almost endless. Whatever the cause(s), the result is that children's mental health is in crisis.

But we should feel neither helpless nor hopeless when it comes to improving the mental health of our youth. We can begin with more mental health education for students from elementary through college, as well as for teachers, parents, and those who work with children such as coaches and scout leaders. Call your schools, your school board members and others who can make this happen! Contact legislators and tell them mental health is a funding priority. If you have a mental health story, share it. When people come forward, it destigmatizes mental illness. Take care of your mental health - learn ways to de-stress and teach your children coping skills and healthy choices while limiting screen time. If you or a loved one need support, make an appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist, go to a support group, take a class, and call your local NAMI. There are programs and support available to help you and your family!

For a screen-free, healthy activity for the entire family, join NAMI DuPage on Saturday, June 10, at the DuPage Fairgrounds for its annual Run for the Mind, followed by a Color Run, co-hosted by NAMI DuPage, Serenity House, and the DuPage County Prevention Leadership Team.

Go to for more information or to register or volunteer. The funds raised will be used to support youth mental health and substance prevention programs.

NAMI DuPage provides services to 20,000 people every year through its mental health programs in schools, support groups for teens and adults, classes for individuals and family members, supported employment program, partnerships with area hospitals, courts, and police departments, outreach to low-income housing sites, and much more. NAMI DuPage's services are all free or low-cost.

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