Can we as dental professionals help turn the tide against the alarming increase in suicides and mental health issues in our young patients?
I don't believe in coincidences. I believe we encounter different people, are given opportunities, and receive information that help guide us on a path that will better ourselves, our family, and our community.
I recently “just happened” to have an ER social worker who works at our local hospital as my hygiene patient. This was fascinating to me because earlier that week, I had finished an article I was writing on anxiety in children and its effects on their oral health, particularly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I had also recently heard of the tragic suicide of a 12-year-old boy posted on social media, which affected me deeply.
A dramatic increase in mental health issues
Our conversation was quite informative as we discussed how our professions had been impacted by this pandemic, especially the way it has harmed young people. What she shared with me served only to confirm what I had discovered while doing research for my article. Our local hospital was no different from many other national medical facilities that have shown a dramatic increase in mental health issues, self-injury, and suicide attempts since the start of the pandemic, especially in people under the age of 18.
In 2021, the American Medical Association (AMA) held a special meeting with its house of delegates where they focused on creating an urgent policy about preventing suicide in young people.
“We were deeply concerned by the dramatic increases we were seeing in youth suicide and suicide risk even before the mitigation measures and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said AMA board member Willie Underwood III, M.D., MS.C, M.P.H. “As a nation we must do everything we can to prioritize children’s mental, emotional and behavioral health and step up our efforts to prevent suicide and mitigate suicide risk among our nation’s youth.”1
Their report, along with other medical opinions across the country, detailed risk factors for youth suicide, such as mental health, PTSD, abuse, use of substances, bullying and cyberbullying, and the COVID-19 pandemic affects.1
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reported on mental health-related emergency department visits for youth aged 12-17 during 2020 compared to 2019. They showed a 31% increase along with an increase in suicide ideation and attempts.2
The statistics only seem to be increasing. In January 2022, Paul King, president and CEO of Stanford Children's Health in Palo Alto, California, said that there was an increase of 60% in the suicide rate of 10- to 24-year-olds between 2007-2018. He went on to explain that from January 2021 to September 2021, it was reported that children ages 5-17 had a 53% increase (from the same period in 2020) in hospital cases related to suicide ideation or attempts, or self-injury.3
Can dental pros help bridge gaps in care?
This is alarming to me and as a passionate believer that dental professionals should treat the whole person and not just their mouth, I have to ask if there is more that we can do to help with this crisis.
Most healthy young people are seen more regularly by their dentist than other medical professionals. This is even truer if they’re receiving orthodontic treatment. My patient, the ER social worker, believed that dental professionals could have a significant impact on our young patients because ideally we have at least two 20- to 60-minute dental hygiene appointments per year to examine, treat, and educate the patient. It’s a time when we are providing individual care and can build a trusting relationship with the patient. This provides the opportunity to regularly identify risk factors, oral conditions like erosion and attrition, and declining oral health that may be related to their mental health status. Patients may only be seeing other medical professionals annually for wellness checkup or an illness-focused examination or specific treatment(s).
She also suggested that we could be the first line of defense with a mental health questionnaire that accompanies our routine health update done at each visit. This questionnaire could provide an avenue for beneficial open communication between us and our patients. This questionnaire could ask about how anxious a patient may be feeling about the dentist or in their daily lives. It could also ask if they feel safe at home or at school or if they have contemplated or attempted suicide in the last 30 days. The information we get from this mental health questionnaire could be vital to a patient and especially a child's future. Our dental visits are underutilized if we only focus on oral health issues and not the total health of the patient.
Last, we need to provide a solid bridge between physical and mental health. As dental professionals, we must utilize our fellow mental health specialists and primary care physicians in hopes to help our patients have a long, bright future. Our patients’ mental health will affect their oral health and vice versa. We can assist those at risk in finding treatment in areas that we are not qualified for. Having a referral system in place is crucial for long term success.
Why are children on my mind? It is not by accident or by coincidence, but part of the cultivated path I am on. Please join me on this path. We as dental professionals can make a difference in the lives of our future generations by joining the cause of reducing suicides and declining mental health.
“You were born with the ability to change someone’s life. Don’t waste it.” (Unknown)
1. AMA adopts policy to address increases in youth suicide and save lives. June 16, 2021. ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/ama-adopts-policy-address-increase-youth-suicide-and-save-lives.
2. CDC morbidity and mortality weekly report. June 11, 2021. cdc.gov/mmwr/Volumes/70.
3. Jensik L. Pediatric suicide attempts, mental health cases rose 53% in 2021, Stanford Children’s CEO say. Becker’s Hospital Review. January 19, 2022. beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/pediatric-suicide-attempts-mental-health-cases-rose-53-percent-in-2021-stanford-children-s-ceo-says.html.