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Take Back Life on Take Back Day: Cook Children’s Health Care System’s JOY Campaign and Speak Now for Kids Encourage Participation in National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, October 23

The Pandemic Has Damaged Kids’ Mental Health Across the Country. Cook Children’s Promotes Pediatric Suicide Awareness and Prevention by Educating Public on How to Properly Dispose of Unused Drugs

Cook Children’s Health Care System, the not-for-profit organization that works to improve the health of children facing illness and disease, is calling on the national community to participate in National Prescription Drug Take Back Day on October 23, 2021. The Fort Worth-based hospital has seen drug misuse dramatically increase as pediatric mental health has sharply declined since the pandemic started.

Cook Children’s reports its pediatric attempted suicide cases have increased about 104% from 2015 to 2020. In 2020, there were 294 attempted suicide cases at Cook Children’s. As of August 2021, there have already been 293 attempted suicides, with four months of the year remaining. Cook Children’s has had 27 patients admitted to the medical center between January and August 2021 for opioid ingestions and overdoses. Without proper education and prevention strategies, these numbers are expected to grow.

“Before COVID, we saw misuse of nonprescription drugs by kids,” said Dr. Stacey VanVliet, M.D., pediatric hospitalist at Cook Children’s. “With the pandemic, we’ve seen the rates go up even higher than before. These things are common and easy to get a hold of, and I think that's what leads to the frequency and overuse — the easy access part.”

Dr. VanVliet addressed the connection to mental health: “Kids are under a lot of stress as it is, particularly entering the high school years, dealing with things like social media and balancing all of the pressure of high achievement. So it leads to some of these decisions that get made in the heat of the moment — whether that’s a moment of disappointment, sadness, or stress. I tend to see a lot of teenagers reach for these medicines when these things happen rather than using coping skills or different ways to process.”

Unfortunately, this issue is not exclusive to Cook Children’s. According to a Pediatrics study, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and risk of suicide among children and adolescents have increased over the course of the pandemic. The Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) reports in the first two quarters of 2021 as compared to that of 2019, children’s hospitals have experienced a 14% increase in mental health emergencies for children ages 5–17. In this same time period, children’s hospitals saw a 45% increase of self-harm and suicide in children ages 5–17 as compared to 2019.

However, there is hope for a brighter tomorrow, as children’s hospitals across the nation and Cook Children’s have created extensive resources for children, families, and communities at large to join the mental health and wellness movement. CHA’s national advocacy community, Speak Now for Kids, raises awareness of health care system challenges relating to children’s mental health. It educates the public on these unique issues and pushes for legislation change. Cook Children’s JOY Campaign is a suicide prevention initiative aiming to foster resilience, provide resources to struggling families, and encourage children that there is hope today for joy tomorrow.

Cook Children’s and its JOY Campaign represent one example of a regional hospital providing resources for families to participate in National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. The hospital works in conjunction with Fort Worth organizations like Safe Kids North Texas and the Elizabeth Harris Foundation to provide medication lock boxes. These allow families to safely conceal or dispose of their unused drugs at home.

Dana Walraven, child safety manager for Safe Kids North Texas, says they purchase these boxes with their injury prevention budget, which is part of the $100 million in total community benefits that Cook Children’s provides annually.

“The boxes are a tool to help reduce child access to medications in the home. The Jordan Elizabeth Harris Foundation is a new partner of our Safe Kids North Texas Coalition, and we work together toward a common goal. In fact, we actually provided lock boxes to them for educational events they were organizing,” Walraven stated.

The American Psychiatric Association reports that 53% of adults with children say they are concerned about their children’s mental health. Resources like Collection Site Locators and medication lock boxes provide parents with active prevention strategies to avoid child opioid misuse or overdose.

Dr. VanVliet shared that open communication is the best suicide prevention strategy: “I always encourage the teenagers and their parents to be in regular communication, have a family dinner if you can, talk about the great things in your life, and talk about what’s not going so great. Try to do some action planning, asking if this becomes too much to handle, what do we do next?”

Locking up prescription drugs now may unlock an opportunity for open conversations later, says Dr. VanVliet, and that can lead to healthier communities for everyone.