By Amy V. Maus, MSW, LCSW
“My son died of Covid-19, but not in the way you think.” Those are the opening words of a short, powerful video, made by the father of 12-year-old Hayden Hunstable, who died by suicide last April. Hayden, like students across the country, had been out of school about a month before his death. As with nearly all American youth today, he had experienced not only the loss of a normal school experience, but also a disruption in his friendships and activities, a reduced ability to see his extended family, and an increased reliance on screen time, which for Hayden focused around online gaming.
Though the death of even one 12-year-old is a death too many, the fear for many national leaders in the field of youth mental health is that, by the time this pandemic is over, there will be numerous Haydens. Unfortunately, there are already signs that their fears may be merited. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), crisis text line (741741), and other state and local crisis hotlines increased during 2020, and the percentage of emergency department visits due to youth mental health emergencies rose.
Rising suicide rates among American youth are nothing new, and the climb in these numbers didn’t start with Covid-19. Far from it – suicide rates have been increasing for the last twenty years. For adolescents and young adults, death by suicide is now the second leading cause of death, exceeded only by accidents. Shockingly, according to the latest data available, suicide is now responsible for the deaths of more American youth each year than all natural causes combined.
The rates of youth suicide began growing more quickly in 2007, the year that saw the sale of the first smart phones. For both youth and adults, there is a clear correlation between time spent on social media and rates of depression and anxiety. The devices that claim to connect us during this pandemic seem to have the opposite effect: loneliness. Bullying, sexual harassment and trauma, and the lack of sustaining, intimate social relationships – all of which are associated with youths’ use of smart phones and social media – are also serious risk factors for suicide.
Yet screen time has skyrocketed in the age of Covid-19, for kids and adults alike. School, socializing, gaming, homework, family visits, entertainment – it’s all screen-based today. At the same time, other youth suicide risk factors have also increased, including depression and anxiety, hopelessness, loneliness, and family stress and dysfunction, while the protective factors against suicide have diminished for many of our kids.
School is one of the strongest protective factors in a child’s life, which is one reason why school and public health leaders have prioritized finding ways to safely open schools for in-person learning. School provides more than academic lessons, as every American family has learned this year. School provides meals to students whose families are struggling financially; access to peers and social interaction; fun activities, sports, and recreation; along with a reason to get up in the morning and a way to organize the hours of the day.
Schools also provide the most widely-available access to mental health assessment and support services that’s available in our country today.  Schools provide counselors, social workers, and psychologists who assess at-risk students, provide counseling sessions, and create an essential safety net for the mental health and safety of our nation’s youth. This safety net has never been more important, or more overburdened.
Knowing that our kids’ risk factors are high right now, and their supports have diminished, how can we as parents, educators, and other caring adults protect the young people in our lives? Several strategies and protective factors have been found effective:
·    ASK. You can never plant the thought of suicide in a youth’s mind by asking if they are thinking of suicide. The most important question that we can ask of a potentially suicidal child is, “Are you thinking of suicide?”
·    Take all suicide threats seriously. It’s a myth that adolescents who talk about suicide just want attention. Nothing could be further from the truth. Eighty percent of youth tell someone about their intentions, directly or indirectly, in the week before a suicide attempt. When friends or classmates report that a peer is posting about suicide or making threats online, family members and school professionals should assume that serious risk exists and take immediate action.
·    Access mental health care that includes suicide assessment. A child who may be at-risk for suicide needs immediate suicide risk assessment by a qualified mental health or medical professional. Ongoing counseling, with a therapist, that the youth likes and will talk to, can be a lifeline during these most stressful and anxious times. Some counselors today are providing in-person appointments, while others are providing telehealth visits.
·    Restrict access to highly lethal means, such as firearms. Simply restricting access saves lives. Suicidologists estimate that gun locks save more adolescent lives each year than do depression screenings. Fifty percent of youth suicide deaths are believed to be impulsive, after a triggering situation – a romantic break-up, a humiliation online, an academic failure, or similar experience. In these suicides, fewer than ten minutes elapse between the thought and the action of suicide. Access to a lethal method is the determining factor for life or death in these situations.
·    Increase family support. Parents are strongly encouraged to spend time with their children one-on-one and away from screens. Have dinner together, go camping as a family, shoot hoops in the driveway, or do whatever activity your family loves to experience together. Everyone – parents included – needs time away from cell phones. Kids need limits on screen time and increased time with the people that care about them in real life.
·    Connect to school however possible. Families are encouraged to call their child’s school counselor or social worker if they are worried about their child’s emotional well-being. When teachers and counselors reach out to a student who doesn’t seem much invested in school, and when they show interest in and care for that student, they are increasing the protective factor of school. For many of our students, coaches can make a huge difference in this factor. Schools can include hotline numbers and local crisis support resources in the emails that they send home to students and families – and this information can save a life.
·    Share the crisis text line number. Kids today are far less likely to actually place a phone call to a hotline. But in a time of crisis, they can and do text the crisis text line. Ask youth to put its number – 741741 – into their phones. While they may never need it, they can share it with a friend or classmate who does, in the moment. A trained hotline worker is always a text away, and they can access local authorities, family members, or the school when they believe a child is in immediate risk.
If you are concerned about a loved one or a student at your school, professional counseling is available for a wide variety of emotional, behavioral, and relationship concerns, including depression and suicidal thoughts/behaviors. Also, training is available for school personnel on the school’s role in suicide awareness and prevention. You may reach the West County Psychological Associates office at (314) 275-8599.
The video from Hayden’s Corner can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJTHFhVyyqI
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