Mental Health Problems Spike Among NC Teens

Cathy Pietro showing a photo of her daughter Lindsey Pazder to N.C. lawmakers in 2017. In the time since Pazder died of an opioid overdose, teen drug deaths and self-inflicted injuries in N.C. have spiked. Carolina Journal file photo

By David Larson
Carolina Journal

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, some parents, child psychologists, and public-health officials were drawing attention to a growing mental health crisis among American teens. But according to preliminary numbers from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services provided to Carolina Journal in late May, this trend has only increased in the time since the pandemic, with a massive jump in suicide attempts, drug overdoses, and involuntary commitments evident among the state’s teenage population.

According to NCDHHS data, the number of emergency-room visits by teens for self-inflicted injuries in N.C., like attempted suicides, rose from 2,362 to 3,259 over this same period — a 38% increase.

An increasing number of N.C. teens are also arriving at emergency rooms due to drug overdoses. In 2016, NCDHHS data showed 1.6 drug-overdose deaths per 100,000 people 13-18 years old. While this improved some before the pandemic, dropping to 1.1 deaths per 100,000, these numbers immediately spiked once the pandemic hit. By 2021, the rate was almost four-times higher, with 4.3 drug-overdose deaths per 100,000 N.C. teens.

These numbers may seem small when looking at the hundreds of thousands of teens in the state, but each death is a sign of thousands more in states of mental crisis and addiction.

“Because of the pandemic and other issues, we have more and more young people that are trying to commit suicide,” state Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, told Carolina Journal. “At the point we’re at right now, especially in young people, the whole mental health aspect is very serious. Teen suicides rates are up. I’ve dealt with so many families that have had kids that have either tried to commit suicide or committed suicide. [Add] on top of that, the self-medication of alcohol or other drugs. All of those things are a big concern.”

Burgin, who chairs both the N.C. Senate’s Health and Health Appropriations committees, is deeply concerned about teen mental health in the state, especially surrounding involuntary commitments and emergency room visits.

In 2020, 2,429 N.C. teens were involuntary committed to mental health facilities, but in 2021, that number has jumped to 3,689, according to data provided to CJ by NCDHHS. This is a 52% increase in a one-year span. Burgin said a major problem caused by this trend is that so many parents are dropping their children off at emergency rooms that there is no place to send them.

“I had one in Harnett County that was in the hospital, in the emergency room, for 94 days, as they were waiting for a place to put that child — actually in the emergency room in Dunn, North Carolina.”

He said he’s seen the same thing repeating, including with a 9-year-old girl in foster care who had to stay in the emergency room for 29 days while they looked for somewhere to place her.

“On any given day, there are 200 people in the emergency room for involuntary commitment; that’s children and adults, but a lot of them are children,” Burgin said. “I was at UNC the other day, and they have a whole wing up there that’s for adolescent kids that’s part of the emergency department. They have young children there, all these folks that are having issues, they end up there until they’re 18 years old.”

There are three main psychiatric hospitals in the state, with a total of 1,500 beds. And Burgin said a big issue is that around 400 of these beds are taken up by defendants in criminal trials who are waiting for competency hearings.

“I want to move those people out, because those beds cost $1,400 a day,” Burgin said. “I want to move those people to jails or local prisons, still treat them — do the counseling, do the psychiatry — but in a less expensive environment. And then take these more severe cases and put them in a mental-health hospital.”

With involuntary commitment of teens for mental health problems “up significantly,” Burgin said he just doesn’t want them “languishing in emergency departments because we don’t have a facility to put them in.”

He plans on traveling the state with NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley to bring attention to this issue and to look for solutions.

“I’m talking to the secretary now, and we’re talking about coming up with a facility, about 100- to 110-bed facility that we can take these cases and not leave them in the emergency room,” Burgin said. “We can get them in a facility and start treating them immediately rather than letting them languish. I call it warehousing them. I don’t want to warehouse kids. I want them somewhere we can treat them and get them on the right track.”

Asked why he believes teens in modern N.C. are struggling so much with mental health, he said, “I sum it up like this: I think there’s a sense of hopelessness among a lot of young people, and it concerns me. A lot of them feel like it’s just not going to get better. I’ve talked to a lot of them, and you just see this lostness. And we as adults have got to do better. I think part of it is a lot of these devices. I think kids are having phones and being on the internet too early.”

12 COMMENTS

  1. Of these cases, I’d like to incorporate the statistics of those with and without a nuclear family structure; just to paint a complete picture.

    • every single teen I know personally – and to go further – even adults – that suffer from some type of mental illness all have grown up in a normal ( for you anyhow) nuclear family unit. That is actually part of the problem believe it or not. The super religious that won’t accept their own flesh and blood if they happen to be born, yes, born, gay, lesbian or transgender. That is the worst parent ever. Imagine not loving your own child because they don’t live up to what you where brought up to believe…. and never a second thought that maybe you were taught wrong! Just kick your child out of your life and tell them how horrible they are. Yeah, I can see how that would affect a teenager or young adult – but that is just one instance. However, being gay etc., is not the mental illness, it is the depression and anxiety and whatever else brought on by being treated so badly by the people that should love and protect you, but don’t. Also there is the constant bullying by others, so you have anxiety and depression from that as well. Again, it isn’t being gay, bi, lesbian or trans etc., that is not the mental health issue – it is how people treat you that is the issue. There are hundreds, maybe more, types of mental illnesses. Many of them are hereditary so it doesn’t matter what your family life is like to a degree. Also there are learning disabilities, I don’t know if they fall into the mental illness category or not. For as long as there have been people on Earth, which the oldest remains have been dated back over 300,000 years ago, surely you don’t believe anything just happened overnight do you? Scientists have discovered primitive and more modern written history that tells of people with what were then called “afflictions of the brain”. Surely you can put two and two together and realize we have always had mental health issues as part of human history. We just refuse to pay much attention to it and would rather blame everything else but ourselves for the problems and never do any research to help those in true need. Then what would certain politicians have to debate over?

      • You’re marginalizing these youths. I’d think it’s fair to say the majority of these kids aren’t part of the LGBTQIA’s community. Where is homosexual lifestyle mentioned once in this article? Nuclear family is the problem? Sheesh. Opinions. We all have them.

  2. So glad we locked down, closed schools and told everyone that their neighbor was potentially killing them with Covid just by being alive and near them. Definitely worth it, not!!

  3. I can’t help but feel sorry for these kids growing up in these times. It’s hard enough for me being a young adult and dealing with these present issues, but these teens and kids are in the most formative times of their lives, and all they hear and see every day is political bologna, COVID this, Monkeypox that, riots in the streets over emotions and feelings, etc. Parents, please be there for your children. It isn’t their fault they exist.

  4. Has Jim Burgin looked into the massive historical increase over the last 25 or 30 years of the amount of drugs big pharma has pumped into these children that might be the cause of this? How many vaccines? ADHD drugs, Adderall? What about the social media and the lack of faith in the family? I respectfully disagree with the above poster. Sure, perhaps super religion (whatever that is) and the LBGT facet may be part of it, but bullying has always been something horrible that kids do to each other. Lets get the the real source-is mental illness a medical issue? Is it hormonal dysfunction? If doctors would get back to doctoring instead of pushing big pharma as much as they do, this may likely subside. I don’t have the answers but it bothers me that the surface is skimmed-not a deeper dive into these issues. My rant of the day!

    • Have you ever watched a program about the mental illness of King George III? Lucy Worsley has done some good series for PBS and I am sure other stations. There was one I saw recently where doctors and scientists can take known symptoms and notations from his doctors, advisors and anyone else who was around the kind during the periods of his illnesses and put them into a computer program and it comes up with a likely diagnosis – of course without seeing him in person, it is only a “likely” diagnosis, but it has shown over a 95% reliability in real life patients. Watching band reading about his bouts with his illness was rather heartbreaking and the treatments even more so. The diagnosis they arrived at was bipolar disorder. I am not disagreeing that there is an over abundance of prescription medicated children. When my child was younger. and this would have been about 30 years ago, he was diagnosed with ADHD and the so doctor wrote out several prescriptions. The pharmacist at the time, **** ****, bless her, refuses to fill them and instead lent me several books on food allergies. She explained what to do- take one type of food away at a time and suggested which foods or dyes to start with. Wow! What a difference in my child. Milk is the number one issue in many issues. We are the only species that continues to drink milk after being weaned – and another species milk at that! Once I removed dairy from his diet and red food dye – he was a completely different child. Much of what we eat are the cause of many of our issues – whether it be mental or physical. I won’t bad mouth pharmaceuticals too much because I have health issues and depend on some medication. If NC and really all of the US would legalize marijuana then you would see pharmaceutical use go way down – which begs the question of why doesn’t the US want to legalize something that has been proven, in other counties, to help with Alzheimer’s, chronic pain, PTSD, epilepsy. glaucoma, cancer and many other illness…….. seems the politicians just might be in bed snuggled up real tight with the pharmaceutical companies. It is a natural plant versus lord knows what is put into the medication we are taking at times.

      Also the super religious or rather evangelicals are the ones who usually tend to disown their own children for being gay etc. What a horrible parent. If you want to believe in God, fine, that is your right in this county. It is also someone’s right not to… but to disown your child because they were born gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans or whatever – just like you and I were born straight makes no sense to me. Every person I know that is not straight – and I have many friends and family members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and non-binary – all of them knew before they even knew what sex was. They knew who they were attracted to at a young age just like us straight people. I had posters of Donny Osmond and David Cassidy on my bedroom wall when I was 9. I did not know about sex but I thought these guys were handsome, so it isn’t far fetched for a 9 year old boy or girl to know they are attracted to whoever is marketed to that age group now.

  5. We always have to blame something else, because we don’t want to face the real problem which is bad parenting. Look yourselves in the mirror. This issue starts at home.

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