My Teen is Suicidal: Is it Safe to Go to the Hospital During COVID-19?

If you’re the parent of a teen living with mental health or addiction issues, COVID-19 is probably especially difficult. With no real school or extracurricular activities to keep your teen busy, and limited opportunities for socializing or to even getting out of the house, teens with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, self-injurious behavior, and suicidal ideation may be more at risk than ever.

You’re a responsible parent. You know that if and when your teen poses a real danger to themselves, you have to take them immediately to the emergency room (ER) or a mental health hospital. Perhaps you’ve already taken them before for a suicide attempt (SA) on non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) incident.

But now, during COVID-19, you worry.

In the back of your mind. A niggling feeling.

A fear.

What if your teen has another suicidal episode?

Should you still go to the hospital?

Usually, you wouldn’t hesitate to bring them to the ER or hospital during a crisis, but now you’re wondering if the situation is different due to COVID-19. Is it even safe to take your teen to the hospital now, where all the people sick with COVID-19 are getting treatment? Will they even let you in? Will they get upset that you came for a mental health concern and not a physical emergency? And worst of all—what if you or your teen becomes infected coronavirus while you’re there?

All these concerns might make you doubt, in the moment, whether to call 911 or drive your teen to the hospital if they express thoughts of suicide. You think maybe you should just stay home and try to handle the situation yourself.

But we’re here to tell you something important:

Don’t do that. Do not, for a moment, hesitate to seek emergency treatment for your suicidal teen. Even if that means you have to go to the hospital and risk exposure to COVID-19.

Of course, if your teen has a trusted counselor or therapist, and you’ve dealt with multiple suicide attempts, instances of suicidal ideation, or self-harm issues in the past, consult with them on how best to handle crises during this time. Keep in mind, though, you may not be able to reach them immediately.

And when you do, they may tell you to take your teen to the hospital or to call 911.

If that’s what they recommend, follow their advice. Of course, you need to take the necessary precautions in the hospital. Follow all the rules.  Wear a mask. Wear gloves. Stay six feet away from the other patients. Avoid touching your face. Follow all the rules. And of course, if you have a psychiatric hospital near you, it’s better to go there than your local ER. You’ll probably get faster and more specific treatment. But if you don’t have a mental health hospital or behavioral care center within a short distance, don’t hesitate to go to any emergency room, urgent care facility, or hospital.

In a nutshell, never ignore your teen’s suicidal remarks because you want to stay away from the hospital or other COVID-19 hotspots. At the hospital, or over the phone if you call 911, a qualified and skilled mental health professional will evaluate your immediate needs and help you decide on the next steps.

Do Not Ignore Talk About Suicide

Talking about suicide – known as suicidal ideation (SI) – should never be ignored. When it comes to suicidal ideation, it’s better to be safe than sorry – even if you’re not sure how serious your teen is about ending their life. Yes, coronavirus is a global pandemic. But the World Health Organization (WHO) categorizes the teen suicide issue as a worldwide public health crisis as well – one which also carries a risk of death. In fact, according to the WHO, suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents and youth.

That’s a very sad statistic, because when people living with mental health problems get the care they need when they need it, it can save their lives. Intervention can prevent suicide, and ongoing treatment can help teens – or anyone – manage the difficult emotions and behavioral patterns associated with mental health disorders.

There is a risk of catching COVID-19 if you go to the hospital – that’s a fact. But there’s also a chance of catching it in the supermarket, from your neighbor, or through any number of potential vectors. Also, while we are in no way downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, not everyone infected with COVID-19 experiences dangerous symptoms. Some who have the virus are completely asymptomatic, and some have mild or moderate cases.

The same can’t be said about suicide.

The consequence of ignoring suicidal ideation can be serious, immediate, and severe.

At the Hospital

Remember that when you go to a hospital regarding suicidal ideation, and a mental health professional determines there’s no real intent behind the SI, they’ll release your teen.

And you can return home.

If the clinician determines that your adolescent should be admitted for their safety, your teen will be placed on a temporary psychiatric hold in the behavioral unit of the hospital. They will receive inpatient care, with 24/7 support and supervision, for about 72 hours. They may remain for an additional one to two weeks if further treatment is required. Of course, if the doctor feels they’re safe to leave earlier, they’ll lift the hold.  During this stabilization period, clinicians will assess your teen for medical, psychiatric, transition, and other support needs.

Discharging to Residential Treatment

Once your adolescent is cleared for discharge from the hospital – depending on the recommendations of mental health professionals – you may need to transfer them straight to a residential treatment center (RTC). An RTC is one step down from inpatient hospitalization but still provides 24/7 supervision and care. During COVID-19, most RTCs in California are open, and continue to serve patients 24/7. Make sure to look for an RTC that has updated its standards and procedures to keep their patients – in this case, your teen – safe and protected in every possible way.