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Teen reflects on recovering from pandemic-related mental health struggles

(NEW YORK) — When lockdowns first hit the country during the spring of 2020, 18-year-old Emma Brun said she was in a tough place.

The student gymnast couldn’t compete in any of her meets or see her teammates and friends in person. Brun, who lives near Dayton, Ohio, told ABC News those lost connections compounded the mental health struggles she was facing even before the pandemic.

“I lost all of that support immediately. It really went downhill at that point,” Brun told ABC News.

After the stay-at-home ended, Brun said she was still dealing with anxiety, feelings of self-doubt and depression. Her mental health struggle ultimately led to a suicide attempt in February 2021.

Brun said she’s in a better place today after months of therapy, medication and self-reflection. She wants to make sure that her story can prompt others to get the help they need with navigating pandemic-related mental health issues.

“My mom and I started sharing what had happened, because I started to feel better and I started to feel hope again. We realized that this is a message that needs to be told,” she said. “It’s something that I can share with other people so that other people can experience the same relief and the joy that came afterward.”

Brun’s battle with depression and suicidal ideation is one that an increasing number of kids and teens have been facing.

Even before the pandemic, mental health struggles were already on the rise among young people. However, data shows the pandemic exacerbated and accelerated these existing issues.

“There’s been a trend over time for kids to have more and more struggles with their own behavioral health,” Dr. John Duby, vice president of community health at Dayton Children’s Hospital, said. “While the numbers were already going up before, they are been augmented. There’s certainly been an added impact that goes with the pandemic, but it’s on top of a problem that was already well on its way.”

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told ABC News’ Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, that there was a 57% increase in the suicide rate among children compared to the decade before the pandemic. Suicide attempts among teenage girls rose by 50% during the first year of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Brun’s parents told ABC News they experienced the effects of this mental health crisis firsthand when they were looking for long-term help for Emma. It turns out that help is not always easy to find, as many hospitals now report long wait lists for available beds and treatments.

It would take nearly 24 hours to find a mental health facility with an available bed was finally found — a full hour-and-a-half drive away from the family’s home, Brian Brun, Emma’s father, told ABC News.

“My heart is broken for my daughter. But all of a sudden, I’m realizing how huge this problem is. I can’t find a bed for my daughter,” Brian said. “Hundreds of other fathers are dealing with this exact thing at this moment.”

Brun said that her recovery took a lot of work, but one of the things that helped was opening up about her condition to her friends and family. She said that everyone has been supportive and has given her an open ear anytime she needs to discuss her mental health issues.

“Sometimes you have negative self-talk. Sometimes you have depression, but it’s not your fault if you do, and that was something I was blaming myself for,” she said.

Doctors, social workers and other professionals are working to address the growing need for mental health resources for children and teenagers.

The Hope Squad, a Utah-based organization, has created peer-to-peer groups across the country to help students look for signs of suicide and mental health distress in their friends and fellow students.

“What we’re finding is so many of our kids want to help. They hear from their peers when their peers are struggling. They hear more so than us through social media and texting,” Beth Celenza, a Hope Squad advisor for Ohio’s Mason High School, told ABC News. “In ways that as teachers we don’t see that.”

Students at Mason High School told ABC News that their engagement with the Hope Squad has not only allowed them to help other students, but it has also helped them address their own struggles with anxiety and depression.

“The whole community has come together on these mental health reasons and come together to support everyone because we’re all going through the same thing of being isolated,” said freshman Ella Hardesty. “Even just for myself… I’ve learned to help myself right now, too.”

Through medication, therapy and support from her loved ones, Brun said she’s in a much better place today than a year ago. She’s back competing in gymnastics and spending more time with her friends.

“Things actually improve with time if you let them and if you just think things through. And you don’t force things to happen. Once that happens, it’s a lot easier,” she said.

Brun’s advice to anyone who may be suffering from mental health issues is to look for the silver lining and seek out anyone who can provide support during the dark times.

“I believe that when people know they’re not alone, it really helps,” Brun said. “I don’t want anybody else to go through what I went through if I can help it.”

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 [TALK] for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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