San Francisco experts describe 'perfect storm' of teen suicides, youth mental health crisis during pandemic

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Along with coronavirus cases, San Francisco mental health professionals say teen suicide, anxiety and depression are also on the rise.

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"Kids have hit a wall," said Christine Garcia, a San Francisco psychologist who says on Halloween night eight teenagers ended up in a San Francisco emergency room after attempted suicides. "Typical is usually one or two at most, and eight is an insane number."

Garcia is the director of Edgewood Center for Children and Families in San Francisco. They run 28 different mental health programs for young people, and last year, helped more 11,000 Bay Area kids, teens and young adults. The pandemic has led to an influx of referrals, particularly for their inpatient program for the sickest patients. "We've had 65 to 70 referrals for just 20 beds."

The reasons range from direct impacts of COVID. "This kiddo," said Garcia describing an Edgewood patient, "had a home with grandparents because his parents had died of COVID, and then his grandparent got COVID and subsequently died."

She also says loneliness and isolation from friends is a big problem for teens who are biologically wired to be "self individuating" and bonding with peers. "You're stuck with your family all the time. All those family issues that come up during the teenage years become heightened." Garcia also said family violence has increase, "there's a higher number of reports of child abuse."

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"In our unit we're experiencing self-harm and suicidal ideation and youth that are attempting," said Liz Siliato, the director of Edgewood's Crisis Stabilization Unit, a youth mental health ER, the only unit of it's kind in San Francisco.

Siliato, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says losing in-person learning during the pandemic, means students have not had as much access to counselors at school. "Now with kids at home and experiencing school through zoom, they're less likely to be able to reach out and those opportunities are kind of missed opportunities. And so, I think kids are going more into crisis."

Dr. Jason Nagata, a UCSF pediatrician specializing in adolescent and young adult health, has been seeing another mental health issue in his young patients. "Since the start of the pandemic our number of patients who've been hospitalized for eating disorders has more than doubled."

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"A lot of people are fearful of experiencing weight gain, what they call the quarantine 15." He says being at home near the kitchen all the time presents opportunities for binge eating, and that the excessive amount of time teens now spend on Zoom and social media can be a trigger. "There's always cameras on you and so people are a little bit more concerned about their body image."

He also said losing sports, has meant boys and girls are experiencing weight related disorders. "We actually have seen a lot of young people who will basically lock themselves up in their room and exercise for several hours a day."

So what can parents do to help?

Garcia says to be flexible when it comes to expectations for your teen. And if you can vet other families and ensure mask wearing and social distancing, allowing outdoor pods with other kids can be helpful. "I think podding is important so kids can actually have moments to see each other and be away from their families."

You can 'take action' and 'find your ally' on our website, where there are links to local Bay Area resources on suicide, and other issues like eating disorders.

We also have a list of mental health emergency numbers.

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