A homeless man sits on the corner of Third and Santa Clara streets in downtown San Jose. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.
A homeless man sits on the corner of Third and Santa Clara streets in downtown San Jose. File photo.

    What would you do if you came home and realized that one of your worst nightmares has come true – your child has committed suicide?

    It’s something no parent ever wants to experience. We ask ourselves, what could we have done? According to the California Healthy Kids Survey, one-third of secondary students experience chronic sadness and 16% contemplate suicide.

    From 2003 to 2017, 243 youths in Santa Clara County committed suicide and the national suicide rate is climbing each year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children 10-to 24-years-old. And with the pandemic, health care professionals are seeing more depression and anxiety in youths.

    Emergency room visits for youth experiencing mental health crises have risen sharply as well, with deliberate self harm increasing a whopping 329% in the past 10 years. This ultimately taxes emergency departments where the staff is unequipped to deal with mental health, leaving youths not getting the care they need and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

    Now let’s look at homelessness. According to the 2019 Santa Clara County Homeless Census, out of the 9,706 people who are homeless, 19% are 24 years and younger. Additionally, 35% of the survey respondents reported becoming homeless when they were 24 and younger.

    Their top three health concerns include psychiatric and emotional conditions, PTSD and drug and alcohol abuse. While some studies suggest mental health disorders are a predictor of future homelessness, others found mental health disorders are also an outcome of homelessness. Regardless, lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders among youth experiencing homelessness is almost twice as high as it is for housed youth.

    What do these two groups have in common? Mental health.

    Children with mental health issues grow into adults with mental health conditions — if they do not receive help. Along with the shortage of mental health professionals, many cannot afford it.

    As advocates and service providers work to create systems of support for youth experiencing homelessness, it is vital to understand the needs of homeless youth suffering from serious mental illness.

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    So what can we do? The solution is simple. Education.

    Implementation of mental health education into middle and high school curriculums is vital. Children should learn about depression, anxiety, signs and symptoms, peer relationships, stress, sleep, effects of technology and social media, race and cultural diversity, and so much more.

    Teaching children more complex issues will create well-rounded, compassionate adults. Consequently, children can become a support system and advocate for their peers. They in turn can better educate the adults around them while also repealing some of the mental health stigma.

    Although Santa Clara County has significantly progressed with resources for children, prevention is key. Numerous studies show early intervention will make a difference.

    Santa Clara County recently was awarded $6 million to launch campus-based mental health services to detect and prevent mental illnesses from becoming a debilitating problem. The plan is to add mental health professionals and wellness centers at hundreds of schools.

    While this is a huge step forward, it still does not reach out to those who will not use the services. It will not teach children what they or their classmates feeling is normal and they can get help. Additionally, education curriculums would positively impact cultures that typically resist mental health assistance.

    Implementation of mental health education and professionals to our schools at a younger age will normalize mental illness and seeking help. Invest in our children now and we will see the numbers change.

    Linh Vong and Sylvia Perez are graduate students at University of Southern California’s Master of Social Work program. 

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