April 14, 2024

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Data from recent years shows Macon-Bibb County teenagers are suffering from mental health problems more often than other adolescents around the state.

Bibb County reported 93.7 hospital discharges for self-harm among 10 to 19-year-olds per 100,000 residents of that age in 2022. That was more than double the state’s average of 45.4, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data.

Five of the 25 people who died by suicide in Macon-Bibb County in 2023 were under the age of 21, according to Ruth Taylor, administrator for the Bibb County Coroner’s office. There have been nine suicides so far in 2024, with only one under the age of 21, she added.

Andrea Cooke, development director of Macon Mental Health Matters, said one suicide is too many. The program aims to increase residents’ access to mental health counseling and well-being events.

“It is our goal to ensure that Macon is the most mentally healthy city in Georgia,” Cooke said. “But it’s going to take time for those numbers to reduce because there weren’t always mental health service options.”

The Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential found that 76% of youth in Bibb County expressed that they felt stressed in 2022. The organization’s data also found that 10% of youth in Bibb County expressed they’ve seriously considered attempting suicide, compared to the state’s average of 6%.

Ngozi Nnaka, a youth counselor at River Edge Behavioral Health, has been working with Macon-Bibb students for six years through the APEX school-based mental health program, a state-funded endeavor that meets students where they are in school settings and provides them with extra therapeutic support.

She said she often finds many Bibb County youth suffering with grief and speaking about suicidal thoughts during therapy sessions.

“It’s a challenge for sure because it’s scary to hear kids that young making those kinds of statements,” she said.

Why are Macon’s youth so stressed?

Several factors contribute to Bibb County’s youth mental health struggles and community violence is one of them, according to Nnaka.

In 2022, Macon had 70 homicides amid a spike in violence, shattering the previous year’s record of 54. Over a dozen of the victims were teenagers.

Mayor Lester Miller declared in January a 67% drop in youth homicides between 2022 and 2023. Bibb County Sheriff David Davis told McClatchy News that while the numbers have decreased significantly, local law enforcement partnerships are working to maintain the progress and decrease youth gang violence.

“We have children who are killing other children, and then they all go to the same school. So, when you’re kind of surrounded by the idea that you may not live past high school, or you have a family member who was young and died suddenly, then those negative thoughts easily accumulate,” Nnaka said.

Community violence also impacts the ability of young Bibb County residents to build social connections and make positive interactions, she added.

“We don’t have a lot for our kids to get into in the community,” Nnaka said. “A lot of my kids say they want to do stuff, but they express fear that if they do something, there’s going to be violence involved when they go, so they’d rather be at home.”

The issue is compounded by poverty, experts say. Georgia Trend Magazine reported Macon-Bibb County’s current poverty rate to be 25%, which Cooke said attributes to the county’s overall health status.

“Our numbers as far as suicidality are slightly higher than the state averages because one of the biggest indicators of mental health concern is going to be poverty, in which Macon has these pockets of intense levels of poverty,” Cooke said.

Poverty may also lead to bullying for children whose parents are struggling to pay bills and can’t afford trendy clothes, resulting in low self-esteem, Nnaka added.

What’s being done about it?

After receiving an overwhelming request for mental health resources from his Student Advisory Committee this year, Bibb County School District Superintendent Dan Sims declared this week as Mental Health Awareness Week in order to provide more wellness options to students.

“I hope this translates to what can happen inside the homes, over spring break, for the rest of the school year and for the rest of our students’ lives so that they can start feeling a better sense of positive wellness,” he said in a Facebook video.

River Edge Behavioral Health also serves Bibb County through the APEX program.

Nnaka said the sessions teach them coping skills and how to manage high stress levels.

“We get them in treatment and begin to explore topics like, ‘How do we create a sense of purpose for you? What do you like to do, and can you do what you like to do?’” she said.

Parents and students can also access services directly through the River Edge clinic, she added.

Macon Mental Health Matters offers free, nontraditional therapeutic services like yoga sessions, drumming circles and healing hikes to residents of all ages. Its Choosing Peace program teaches youth how to more effectively communicate and solve problems peacefully.

Every Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the Booker T. Washington Center, the Choosing Peace program teaches Macon-Bibb County kids about peaceful conflict resolution in an effort to reduce violence and improve mental health.Every Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the Booker T. Washington Center, the Choosing Peace program teaches Macon-Bibb County kids about peaceful conflict resolution in an effort to reduce violence and improve mental health.

Every Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the Booker T. Washington Center, the Choosing Peace program teaches Macon-Bibb County kids about peaceful conflict resolution in an effort to reduce violence and improve mental health.

“We also do therapist consultations so people can ask questions about what therapy is like. They have the opportunity to really see that it’s probably not like what they see on TV, and that we’re not as scary as some people may think we are,” Cooke added.

Cooke, who is also a certified trainer for youth mental health first aid in Bibb County schools, said anyone working with youth can serve as the frontline person in detecting signs of a mental health crisis.

“A trusted adult in a child’s life can change the trajectory of their lives so we try to make sure that people are well-equipped with the tools to be that trusted adult,” she said.


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