Pediatricians are on the front lines of a mental health crisis

How Matt Richtel spoke to adolescents and their parents for this series

In mid-April, I spoke to the mother of a suicidal teen whose struggles I’ve been following closely. I asked how her daughter was doing.

Not well, the mother said, “If we can’t find anything drastic to help this child, this child won’t be here long-term.” She started to cry. “It’s out of our hands, it’s out of our control,” she said. “We try everything.”

She added: “It’s like waiting for the end.”

During nearly 18 months of reporting, I got to know many adolescents and their families and interviewed dozens of doctors, therapists, and experts in the science of adolescence. I heard heartbreaking stories of pain and uncertainty. From the beginning, my editors and I discussed how best to deal with the identities of people in crisis.

The Times sets high standards for providing anonymity to sources; our style book calls it “a last resort” for situations where important information cannot be published otherwise. Often the sources face a threat to their careers or even their safety, be it from a vengeful boss or a hostile government.

In this case, the need for anonymity had another imperative: to protect the privacy of young, vulnerable adolescents. They have harmed themselves and have attempted suicide, and some have threatened to try again. As we told their stories, we had to remember that our first duty was to ensure their safety.

If The Times published the names of these adolescents, they could be easily identified years later. Would that hurt their job prospects? Would a teenager – a legal minor – later regret exposing his or her identity during a period of pain and struggle? Would publishing the story amplify the ongoing crises?

As a result, some teens are identified only by the first initial; some of their parents are identified by first name or initial. Over the months, I got to know M, J, and C, and in Kentucky, I got to know struggling adolescents whom I identified only by their ages, 12, 13, and 15. In some stories, we didn’t publish exactly where the families lived.

Everyone I interviewed gave their own consent and parents were usually present during the interviews with their adolescents. Occasionally a parent offered to leave the room, or an adolescent asked for privacy and the parent agreed.

In these articles I heard sadness, confusion and a desperate search for answers. The voices of adolescents and their parents, though shielded by anonymity, deepen our understanding of this mental health crisis.

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