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CHICAGO — Emergency departments are filling up with children having suicidal thoughts. It’s happening to kids as young as 5 and spiking with teenagers.

Mental health is always a challenge. It is under the microscope in a new study by researchers at Northwestern University and Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Suicidal thoughts were a problem that was present before the pandemic, but it was masked in the panic surrounding Covid. Then isolation and depression got even worse. And doctors say the suicide threat is swelling.

Dr. Audrey Brewer is a Lurie Children’s pediatrician and Instructor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We would classify it as an epidemic,” she said. “Honestly, it’s a mental health crisis. … It was a drastic increase in emergency department visits among youth of all age groups back in 2019. So way before the pandemic started.”

The numbers in the study show suicidal thoughts do not discriminate, affecting a diverse population. “Mental illness doesn’t exclude any one specific racial ethnic group. It doesn’t exclude your economic status. This is impacting everyone across the country and in our state,” Brewer said.

The biggest concern is suicidal ideation.

“Suicidal ideation is the thoughts of wanting to potentially commit suicide, not actually the act in it but it’s the thoughts of wanting to commit suicide,” Brewer said.

The study showed suicidal ideation increased more than 45 percent from 1999 to 2020. More than 47,000 young people ages 10-19 have died. The culprit is the growing prevalence of depression, anxiety and severe mental illness, according to the research. And once a person has suicidal thoughts, they are more than three times more likely to act on them and die by suicide.

“(The thoughts could) potentially could lead to someone actually following through on wanting to harm themselves,” Brewer said.

The data paints the picture of the problem, but medical experts are still stumped about the root cause and the solution.

“Things related to poverty, also other types of traumas or discrimination or traumas in the home, if there are family members dealing with mental illness as well (could be causes),” Brewer said. “There are so many factors why kids are going through these mental health concerns.”

The pressure of school, social isolation, social media, politics, family, neglect or abuse all weigh heavily on our youth.

“If I’m not able to address the mental health concerns of my patients, then it’s going to be really challenging for me to address their physical health needs,” Brewer said. “We need to be able to provide more resources for kids in outpatient setting, resources whether it’s in the school system or different community-based organizations. We need to develop more policies to really help and support our kids as well as their families.”

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of self-harm, seek help. The 988 suicide and crisis lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress.