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Student suicides raise concerns about the cost of school closures

Dana Dyer teaches an online seventh grade algebra class from her empty classroom at Walter Johnson Junior High School on the first day of distance learning for the Clark County School District amid the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on August 24, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Dana Dyer teaches an online seventh grade algebra class from her empty classroom at Walter Johnson Junior High School on the first day of distance learning for the Clark County School District amid the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on August 24, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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In a stark reminder of the toll the pandemic is taking on young peoples' mental health, the nation's fifth-largest school district announced it would start in-person classes after 18 students committed suicide.

The New York Times reported that Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, saw a spate of suicides since moving to remote learning in March. Administrators also received 3,100 alerts of suicide risks or students in need of support through the district's mental health monitoring system.

Now, despite a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the region, the school district is taking steps to get high-risk students back into the classroom. Principals and teachers will evaluate students individually and invite them to return to in-person classes based on academic and social-emotional needs.

"When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the COVID numbers we need to look at anymore," Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara told The Times.

The school district reported that 12 of the 18 student suicides occurred in the last six months. The youngest student to take their life was 9 years old.

Over the summer, CCSD invested in GoGuardian software system to monitor students' online activities for suicide risks and alert administrators about concerning behavior. One man credited the system with saving his12-year-old grandson's life.

"My grandson was using a school-issued iPad and was searching how to make a noose and that somehow alerted the school," the grandfather told KSNV. The school alerted the boy's parents just in time. The father went to his son's room and found him with a noose around his neck made out of multiple shoe strings.

The boy is doing better, the family reported, but they believe the crisis was brought on by the pandemic and distance learning requirements. "His parents asked him, 'Why, why?' And really one of the only things they got out of him was, 'I miss my friends. I don't have friends,'" the grandfather explained.

There is no concrete evidence correlating the long-term school closures to an increase in youth suicides. Suicide statistics have not been compiled for 2020. However, other data indicate that the problem is not isolated to a single school district or a particular part of the country.

"There's reason to believe this is something bigger," said Dr. Stephen Brock, professor and school psychology program coordinator at California State University-Sacramento.

The youth suicide crisis has been building over the years. In10 a decade, childhood suicides increased by 56%. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, suicide was the second leading cause of death among 10 to 18-year-olds and the single leading cause of death for youth between 13 and 15.

"Before the pandemic occurred, we knew something was wrong," Brock said. Now, there are concerns that increased isolation due to the pandemic and other triggers for mental illness, will make the situation even worse.

One of the early indicators of psychological crises in children are mental health-related visits to the emergency room for self-harm injuries or suicide attempts. Over the past year, the CDC documented a 24% increase in emergency hospitalizations for children ages 5-11 and a 31% increase in children 12-17.

Studies have also shown the mental health burdens of the pandemic are being felt disproportionately by young adults. The CDC found 63% of 18 to 24-year-olds reported symptoms of anxiety or depression related to the pandemic and 25% said they had seriously considered suicide. The rates of suicidal thinking alone were twice as high as in previous years.

Anecdotal reports suggest a growing demand for suicide prevention services in schools. In the last ten days, the National Association of School Psychologists received two requests for consultative support for potential suicide clusters, NASP communications director Katherine Cowan noted.

Schools traditionally play an important role in suicide prevention and supportive mental health services. Teachers and counselors often serve as the first line of defense in identifying problems with students, including depression or suicidal thinking.

"School closures are taking away the vital capacity for educators to identify and intervene as these issues become apparent and students become symptomatic," said Dr. Amanda Fialk, chief of clinical services at The Dorm.

Virtual learning has made it more difficult to assess at-risk students or intervene when teachers and counselors don't have physical access to students. But it is not impossible.

"We’ve been providing guidance for our colleagues on suicide assessment in the distance learning environment," said Dr. Brock, who developed the crisis intervention training program for the National Association of School Psychologists.

"Among the things that we’re going to have to do is to be more vigilant for the so-called indirect suicide threats," he said. That can include observing students for changes in behavior, signs of withdrawal, lack of energy and statements suggesting hopelessness or desperation.

A Baltimore family said they became aware of the warnings signs too late for their 14-year-old son Michael Myronuk Jr. who took his life in October.

"There's just so much isolation you can put any human being in. And since March, to imagine, just being a teenager is hard enough," Michael's mother, Heathyr Sidle told WBFF.

Michael's parents said their son could have adjusted better if he were able to return to the classroom. By the time they learned from the school that he stopped attending classes, he was disengaged, showing signs of depression.

“He didn't have any hope. He just gave up," Sidle told WBFF. "Our son made a choice he can't ever take back."

Experts emphasize that suicide is preventable, especially in young people. Many children who attempt suicide, may act impulsively but they typically spend time thinking about it, explained Dr. Richard McKeon, chief of the Suicide Prevention Branch at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

"It's not typical for a death by suicide among youth to come completely out of the blue," McKeon said. "That's part of the importance of being willing to ask the important question: have you been having thoughts about suicide?"

Parents ask the question directly if they have concerns about their child, he said. They are also encouraged to contact the Suicide Helpline for more resources.

Parents of young children should also be aware of suicidal ideation in children under 12. A study published before the pandemic suggested that preadolescent suicidal ideation among preadolescents was more common than previously thought. More concerning, as many as 75% of caregivers appeared to be unaware of their child's suicidality.

Many students have been kept out of their classrooms and away from their peers for more than ten months. It's not clear how many schools have reopened fully or under a hybrid model. The previous Trump administration said it was not the federal government's job to track school districts' reopening plans or infection rates.

Last week, President Joe Biden released a plan for reopening most K-8 schools within his first 100 days with the goal of reopening all schools as soon as possible. Biden has requested $130 billion to help K-12 schools reopen.

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If you are someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

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