Pediatricians are at the forefront of a mental health crisis

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

In mid-April, I was talking to the mother about a suicidal teenager whose struggles I have closely followed. I asked how her daughter was doing.

Not well, the mother said, “If we can’t find something drastic to help this baby, this baby won’t be here in the long run.” She started to cry. “He’s out of our hands, he’s out of our control,” she said. “We are trying everything.”

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

In nearly 18 months of reporting, I met many teenagers and their families and interviewed dozens of doctors, therapists and experts in the science of adolescence. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of pain and uncertainty. From the beginning, my editors and I have been discussing how to best manage the identities of people in crisis.

The Times sets a high standard for granting anonymity to sources; our style book calls it the “last resort” for situations where important information cannot be published in any other way. Often, the sources could face a threat to their career or even their safety, whether from a vengeful leader or a hostile government.

In this case, the need for anonymity had a different imperative: to protect the privacy of vulnerable young adolescents. They hurt themselves and attempted suicide, and some threatened to try again. In telling their stories, we had to be aware that our first duty was their safety.

If The Times published the names of these teenagers, they could be easily identified years later. Would this damage their job opportunities? Would a teenager, a legal minor, later regret revealing his identity during a time of pain and struggle? Would seeing the published story amplify the ongoing crises?

Consequently, some adolescents are identified only by the first initial; some of their parents are identified by name or initial. Over the months I have known M, J and C, and in Kentucky I have known troubled teens who I identified only by their ages, 12, 13 and 15. In some stories, we have not posted exactly where the families lived.

Everyone I interviewed gave their consent and parents were generally present for interviews with their teenagers. On some occasions, a parent has offered to leave the room, or a teenager has asked for privacy and the parent has agreed.

In these articles I have felt pain, confusion and a desperate search for answers. The voices of teens and their parents, while protected from anonymity, deepen the understanding of this mental health crisis.