Healthy Tahoe: Youth mental health impacts during challenging times |

Healthy Tahoe: Youth mental health impacts during challenging times

Tracy Protell, MD

The Caldor Fire and smoke that accompanies it has created an upheaval of normal life for the Lake Tahoe region. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and has been a persistent issue, affecting the physical and mental health of people across the nation.

Isolation, social distancing and now evacuation and displacement creates loss of routine, causing increased stress and anxiety. This emotional distress is impacting many people’s mental health and contributing to depression, especially within the teen population.

Tracy Protell

Observing signs of adolescent depression and distress may be more difficult right now, as changes in routine will not be as obvious, but there are other signs to keep in mind, especially during the ongoing stress of this situation:

● Noticeable changes in eating or sleeping habits

● Unexplained or unusually severe, violent or rebellious behavior

● Withdrawal from family or friends

● Sexual promiscuity, truancy and vandalism

● Drastic personality change

● Agitation, restlessness, distress or panicky behavior

● Talking or writing about committing suicide, even jokingly

● Giving away prized possessions

● Doing worse in school

If you notice any of these warning signs in your child, student or friend, be prepared to take these steps:

● Offer help and listen. Don’t ignore the problem. Share the behaviors which concern you; you don’t need to solve the problem or give advice.

● Take any talk of suicide seriously and use the word “suicide” when discussing it with your teen. Talking about suicide doesn’t cause suicide, but avoiding what’s on the teen’s mind may make that teen feel truly alone and uncared for.

● Remove or lock up lethal weapons in your home including guns, pills, kitchen utensils and ropes.

● Get professional help. A teen at risk of suicide needs professional help. Even when the immediate crisis passes, the risk of suicidal behavior remains high until new ways of dealing and coping with problems are learned. Ask your child’s doctor or school counselor for some resources.

● Don’t be afraid to take your child to a hospital emergency room if it is clear that he or she is planning suicide. You may not be able to handle the situation on your own.

Importantly, parents must teach and model healthy coping mechanisms; managing stress is a learned skill with lifelong implications. Healthy stress management habits may include exercise, reading or journaling, regular eating and sleeping habits and improved diet.

Additionally, during times of increased distress, parents can work with their teen to:

● Label their feelings and understand some days will be better than others.

● Acknowledge what can and cannot be controlled. Situations like the COVID-19 pandemic and Caldor Fire highlight how many things we can’t control.

● Make a plan by identifying the problem (for example, “I miss my friends”). Then compile ways to solve the problem (send them a card, FaceTime, watch the same TV show and call each other to talk about it).

● Do something fun—games/ play is a natural stress reliever.

● Write down two or three things you are thankful for- start small, it doesn’t have to be significant.

September is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month and represents a time to spotlight this timely issue. The Caldor Fire, along with the ongoing pandemic is leaving a devastating wake, both from physical illness and mental health issues. Don’t brush off odd behavior from your teen. Be hyper-vigilant in prevention measures. Know how to identify signs of depression and/ or suicide and when to provide or seek help.

Dr. Tracy Protell is a pediatric psychiatrist with Barton Psychiatry. For more information about taking care of your mental health, or for a list of area resources and crisis lines, visit

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