Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

April 10, 2014

BILL STANCZYKIEWICZ: Indiana's youth are facing an invisible health crisis

Suicide is 2nd leading cause of death among Hoosiers ages 15-24


Kokomo Tribune

---- — Terre Haute native Tommy John posted 288 victories as a major league baseball pitcher, but one opponent was too strong to overcome. His son’s mental illness, which remains a prevalent challenge for Indiana youth.

Taylor John, whose theater credits included appearing on Broadway as Gavroche in “Les Miserables,” ended his life four years ago by overdosing on prescription drugs. He was 28 years old.

“He was a very talented, outgoing, funny young man [who would] laugh and sing,” Tommy John recalled. “He had the most beautiful voice. Perfect pitch.”

And Taylor also had mental illness. His dad described him as “obsessive compulsive,” and “then he was diagnosed as being bipolar, manic depressive. He was diagnosed when he was in his 20s. When he was younger, we had no idea.”

The lack of diagnosis and treatment earlier in Taylor’s life is all too common in Indiana. Nearly 20 percent of Hoosier youth have mental health needs. However, half of those children between the ages of 0-5, and one-third of those youth between the ages of 12-17, do not receive professional care for their mental health challenges.

Government leaders have noticed. The State Commission on Improving the Status of Children, which includes the leaders of several state agencies, a Supreme Court justice and members of the General Assembly, listed undiagnosed and untreated mental illness as top concerns among Hoosier children and youth.

Young people with mental illness are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and struggle with school or work. While feelings of sadness are normal, persistent sadness — lasting two weeks or more — can be a sign of depression which, if left untreated, may lead to suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Indiana has the nation’s highest rate of students who have contemplated suicide (19 percent) and the country’s second highest rate of high school students who have attempted suicide (11 percent). Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Hoosiers between the ages of 15-24.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stressful life events can increase the possibility of suicide. Examples include the death of a loved one, a relationship breakup, financial insecurity, school difficulties or a violent family environment. In addition, youth who identify as homosexual, bisexual or transgender are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.

Bob Coles, vice president of clinical services for Meridian Services, a statewide mental health care provider based in Muncie, alerts parents, educators and youth workers to watch for warning signs of mental illness and suicidal tendencies. The list includes changes in behavior or attitude such as a child who becomes moody, angry or withdrawn. Other potential indicators include changes in appetite or sleeping habits, a decline in spending time with friends and a loss of interest in hobbies or other favorite activities.

“Be aware of those kinds of changes, and then talk with your child about what is going on,” Coles advised. “If you feel like these are behaviors that are significant, or if the behaviors are persistent, then it’s a good idea to get [professional] help.”

If the situation is urgent, call 911 or take your child to the hospital emergency room. Assistance also is available on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK.

Coles explained that doctors are improving their ability to detect and treat mental illness. “Health care professionals are being educated to look for emotional factors that may be tied to the physical problem that is going on. They then are incorporating additional help such as [mental health] counseling into the medical care.”

Coles emphasized that families should not feel ashamed or stigmatized if they suspect their child has a mental illness.

Tommy John, meanwhile, encouraged families to be informed and be proactive. “If you can get as much information as you can about what to look for and what to do, then you can get your child [proper care],” John said.

Detecting mental illness in children and youth and providing them with prompt medical care can help those kids survive one day at a time. Or as Gavroche and the cast of “Les Miserables” sing so well, “One more dawn. One more day. One day more.”

Bill Stanczykiewicz is president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at iyi@iyi.org.