An outgoing seventh grader, Charlie Olsen loved to socialize and be with his friends. But when the pandemic struck, everything changed. As with most children of his generation, his world immediately became smaller and much more isolated.
He felt down the whole time. He got stomach pains and sobbed himself to sleep. Even his joints hurt.
After his parents took him to specialists to rule out physical ailments, Charlie was diagnosed with situational depression. He said he felt better after speaking out about his emotional state and mental health.
Even though the stigma surrounding mental illness has decreased, many people still find it uncomfortable to talk about their feelings and what they’re going through. But not Charlie. He sees no difference between discussing physical and mental health.
“If I fell and scraped my knee, I wouldn’t be ashamed to talk about it,” he said. “Mental health is something that needs to be talked about because it can help.”
Mental health problems have worsened since the pandemic began, ranging from anxiety and depression to the state’s high suicide rate among young people.
People like Charlie — who got the help he needed after his parents reached out — want to use their own experiences to help others and improve the mental health discussion at home, in doctor’s offices and businesses, and in the State House.
But despite a nationwide campaign to encourage people to speak out about mental health, the establishment of a new 988 suicide and crisis hotline, a revised statewide suicide prevention plan, and millions of state dollars spent to improve mental health services, the tide remains Suicide is a growing problem in the State of Granite.
Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 34 in New Hampshire.
“Despite the fact that more is being done today to prevent suicide than at any time in history, the suicide rate in the United States continues to rise,” according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Just this weekend, the Suicide Prevention Foundation hosted an annual event for survivors of suicide loss to come together and find connection, understanding and hope through their shared experiences. The observance occurs the weekend before Thanksgiving each year because the holiday season is a difficult time for survivors.
What Charlie didn’t realize at first was that many people are reluctant to seek psychological help because they are embarrassed to talk about it.
Charlie, who became the state’s kid governor in 2021, has since tried to help children struggling with depression. As he works with the National Alliance for Mental Illness in New Hampshire to fight stigma, he constantly emphasizes the message: “You don’t have to do this alone.”
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2022 Kids Count Data Book reports that children in New Hampshire and across the country are struggling with anxiety and depression on an unprecedented scale.
Children aged 3 to 17, which increased from 14.4% in 2016 to 18.4% in 2020, showed symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Two years of living with COVID-19 has plunged people into a “new normal” of fear, uncertainty and isolation. As a result, the psychological burden increased.
It did, however, come with a hidden benefit: the dialogue about mental health was evolving.
As more people sought treatment, conversations about mental health became much more open.
However, conversations about mental health tend to focus on preventing suicide and treating depression and anxiety. Suicide survivors often struggle to find ways to heal.
Alexa Felix, a case manager at Greater Manchester Mental Health Center, uses her personal experience to help people who have lost someone to suicide.
During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, Felix lost her father to suicide. He called her the “heart of my life”.
“We loved watching the New England Patriots together and getting Dunkin Donuts,” Felix said. “That was our thing.”
As Felix mourned her father’s death, she went through a series of emotions. She wondered if she could have done more to change the situation.
“Relying on support, understanding that you’re not alone, and practicing self-compassion has helped me,” she said.
Go at the other person’s pace, Felix advises those supporting someone with a mental health issue or a lived experience.
“Let them lead the conversation, yell, yell, cry or whatever,” Felix said. “Just be open and understand that you probably won’t have the solutions or the answers, just be there.”
Elaine de Mello, director of Suicide Prevention Services at the National Alliance on Mental Illness NH, has worked in the mental health field in New Hampshire for more than four decades and has noticed an increase in calls to helplines since the pandemic began.
De Mello believes mental health organizations and the CDC’s years of efforts to prevent suicide and encourage people to call for help have paid off during the pandemic. On the other hand, she said the historically labor-poor mental health industry has been worsened by the surge in demand for mental health services from the pandemic.
“We have an effective treatment, but we have to support that at the federal level, we have to fund it,” de Mello said. “We don’t fund research, treatment and programs for mental health in the same way that we fund other critical illnesses like heart disease and cancer.”
While it can take a while to see a mental health professional, Felix and de Mello say there are alternative ways to deal with mental health issues.
■Join support groups.
■Contact peer support.
■ Look for online therapy options.
Support groups and mental health awareness activities during Felix’s difficult time gave her a sense of validation and helped honor her father’s memory.
Felix urges anyone suffering from mental health problems to “do some research, but do it in your own time and do what you’re comfortable with.” Unlike external factors, “You have to focus on what you can control.”
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free and confidential support for those in need, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Veterans: Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online, or text 838255 for confidential support 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Deaf and hard of hearing people are supported.
Crisis text line: Free 24/7 support for people in crisis situations. From anywhere in the US, text 741741 to text a trained crisis counselor.
Trans Lifeline: Call 1-877-565-8860 for a helpline staffed by transgender people for transgender people. Trans Lifeline volunteers are ready to respond to any support needs of community members.
Disaster emergency hotline: Call 1-800-985-5990 for a 24/7 national hotline dedicated to providing crisis counseling to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or man-made disasters.
The Trevor Project: A nationwide, 24/7, toll-free, confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth. If you are a young person in crisis, having suicidal thoughts, or need a safe and nonjudgmental place to talk, call 1-866-488-7386.
The National LGBT Support Center: Call 1-888-843-4564. Open to callers of all ages. Provides peer advice, information and local resources.