Is the pandemic a factor in the rise in youth suicides throughout the nation? Delaware experts weigh in, and offer advice on reading and reacting to troubled teens.
Spencer Smith was a 16-year-old sophomore honor student who loved football. When his Brunswick, Maine, school closed last spring due to COVID-19, he dedicated himself to training for the fall season, hoping to be a starter on the defensive line. But the coronavirus pandemic continued, and the school announced a scaled-back football season, then switched to flag football. Spencer was a tackler, not a runner. He soon quit the team, stopped working out, began taking naps, and struggled with remote learning.
Then, on a cold December morning, Jay Smith, concerned that his son had missed homeroom, went to his bedroom, and discovered Spencer’s lifeless body. He had committed suicide.
In Northbrook, Ill., 18-year-old Dylan Buckner was a star quarterback with a 4.7 grade-point average and 14 offers to play Division III football. His first choice was MIT.
But the pandemic closed down his classrooms and barred him from the football field and the clubs he enjoyed, including the newspaper, where he was sports editor. Dylan had been fighting depression for a couple of years with the help of counseling, but on Jan. 7, it all became too much for him and he took his own life.
Parents of both teens blamed their sons’ deaths on the isolation and disruption created by the pandemic. Said Karen Buckner, Dylan’s mother: “I believe things would have been different if he was sitting in class with 25 kids.”
Suicides by even younger children, including a 13-year-old Washington girl in September, and a 12-year-old boy in Texas last May, also have been linked to the pandemic.
It’s been a solid year since America’s new normal became a bleak hellscape of shut-down schools, cancelled sporting events and concerts, closed theaters, restaurants and bars, combined with social-distancing and the ongoing mask/no mask debate. The resultant economic downturn added another weight on a society already burdened with social unrest and political tong wars in Washington, D.C.
Throughout America, the suicide rate had been climbing for decades. And no age group has experienced a greater increase than teenagers and young adults. Suicide in this cohort became the second-most common cause of death after accidents, rising from 6.8 deaths to 10.6 deaths for every 100,000 teens and young adults over the decade through 2017.
One recent survey, according to Parentology, showed that “one in six [teens] reported having thought about suicide in the 12 months prior to taking the survey . . . and about one in 10 reported having actually attempted suicide in the past year.”
Teenagers have been more likely to die at their own hands than from COVID-19. In July, Dr. Robert Redfield, then director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in an online interview: “We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above excess that we had as background than we are seeing the deaths from COVID.”
Data on suicides is usually two-to-three years old, but the latest numbers reveal that Delaware is not immune to this macabre trend. From 2009 to 2018, teen suicides in the state rose by 44%, ranking us 25th nationally.
In early February, Out & About was told unofficially that high school suicides in Delaware in the first month of the year had almost reached double figures. We were unable to confirm a number.
One local mental health facility, Sean’s House in Newark, reported 637 visitors from Oct. 1 through early February. “A safe haven” for anyone age 14 to 24 who is dealing with mental health challenges, the house, at 136 W. Main St., is open 24/7.
Hillary May, director of program development, reports that Sean’s House resources include more than 60 students trained in peer support, five staff members trained in peer support who are able to assist guests in connecting to professional help through a referral system, three psychology doctoral students who are on call overnight, and two supervisors who are licensed mental health professionals.
Experts are generally reluctant to blame the pandemic for the uptick in teen suicides, but they all agree that it has had a negative effect on that demographic.
Dr. Aileen Fink, director of the Delaware Division of Prevention and Behavioral Health Services, points to a study published in Pediatrics that “examined whether there were differences in youth suicide attempts and deaths by suicide in 2020 compared with 2019 by looking at emergency department records. The study did not find any broad spikes in increases in suicidal thoughts, attempts or deaths, but researchers did find some increase during certain months in 2020 which corresponded with times where COVID-19-related stressors were higher.”
Says Jennifer Seo, deputy director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware: “I can’t say necessarily that the effect of the pandemic has been greater than on adults, because it has had a negative impact on all ages. Most of us have experienced some type of loss or disruption in our lives. But especially when it comes to our youth, there has been a change in routine and continuity, and kids in general like to have structure, like to have routine.”
Because teenagers are social by nature and developmentally reliant on their peers, not being able to attend school leaves a gaping chasm in the landscape of their lives. In Delaware, many schools have opted to replace in-person learning with remote/virtual and hybrid learning. “This has had a definite impact on the social aspect of [teens’] lives,” says Seo.
FOMO BECOMES REAL
The attendant cancellation of sports, clubs, proms, graduations, and other activities is particularly devastating for high school and middle schoolers. This leads to a zeitgeist in which FOMO (fear of missing out) metastasizes from a thought into a full-fledged reality. Teenagers, says Jennifer Smolowitz, project director for Suicide Prevention at the Mental Health Association in Delaware, “are losing some of their normalcies, even losing their identity.” She cites the example of athletes (like Spencer Smith and Dylan Buckner) who can’t play their sports, “so some are losing out on scholarship opportunities.”
Isolation is another contributing factor in creating what some have called “generation lockdown.”
“I’m sure they’re finding ways to hang out, but it’s not the same,” Smolowitz says. “They’re not getting to school every day, so they’re spending a lot of time by themselves. Much of that time they’re spending alone or dealing with younger siblings, but also on the computer, and that can lead to a whole different scope of problems.”
A recent study in the United Kingdom supports that statement. UK researchers who studied more than 10,000 14-year-olds found greater social media use related to online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem, and poor body image.
Seo says not being in school has been particularly hard on LGBQ+ youth. She explained in an email: “Sometimes for them, being at school is a safety net; they can truly express themselves there. When they’re home they are maybe not being identified or addressed by their gender preference or chosen name or able to fully express themselves in the clothes they prefer. For some, school was and is a place where they find support from friends, GSA clubs, and faculty/staff. Because of the lack of support, isolation and possible anxieties associated with keeping their identities a secret at home, there is concern with our trans youth become higher risk for suicide and other mental health concerns.”
NO SECOND SET OF EYES
Smolowitz points out that the absence of school eliminates a potential checkpoint that could detect a depressed and anxious student. Like every generation, today’s teens often are reluctant to confide in their parents. In fact, studies have shown that a major risk factor in teen suicides is conflict with or neglect by parents. That makes what Smolowitz calls “a second set of eyes” crucial.
“A lot of times, teachers and counselors would be the ones to notice,” she says. “But with schools shut down, teachers and other students don’t see them, so they miss out on the opportunity to seek help for them.”
If parents know their child is reluctant to talk to them, Smolowitz suggests calling on a friend’s parent, a coach, or a teacher to intercede. Seo says the family’s primary physician or pediatrician may be the best place to start looking for help.
While some signs of teen depression are obvious, here’s a handy checklist from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- withdrawal from friends and family members
- trouble in romantic relationships
- difficulty getting along with others
- changes in schoolwork quality, or lower grades
- rebellious behaviors
- unusual gift-giving or giving away possessions
- appearing bored or distracted
- writing or drawing pictures about death
- running away from home
- changes in eating habits
- dramatic personality changes
- changes in appearance (for the worse)
- sleep disturbances
- drug or alcohol abuse
- talk of suicide, even in a joking manner
ASKING THE HARD QUESTIONS
It’s best, of course, if the child opens up to the parent. Seo and Smolowitz encourage parents and guardians to establish a safe home environment where children can talk freely in a non-judgmental environment.
“Let the child know that if there’s anything going on, they can come to you and talk with you,” Seo says. “And if you see major changes, ask the hard questions: ‘I’ve noticed X, Y and Z; are you feeling depressed, anxious?’ Or even ask the question: ‘I’ve noticed X, Y and Z behavior; are you possibly thinking about suicide? You can be honest with me, I’m not going to get upset.’”
The direct question is also endorsed by Fink. “Asking a youth about suicide does not increase their risk of thinking about or engaging in self-harm,” she says.
Adds Seo: “I think sometimes, by vocalizing these things, kids kind of gain an awareness and realize that now that we’re talking about it, I didn’t think about it at first. The earlier you can talk about this and get intervention, the better.”
While dealing with troubled offspring, parents should remember to take care of themselves, Fink cautions. “The wellbeing of caregivers increases their ability to provide support for their children,” she says.
As parents continue to grapple with teen angst in the midstof the pandemic, the poignant words of Spencer Smith’s father may offer the best advice of all. In an interview days after his son’s death, Jay Smith said this: “Check on [your children] every morning, every night, no matter how old they are, if they’re at home. Always give them a hug, tell them how proud you are of them. I remember always telling Spencer that. I think I should have told him more.”
WHERE TO GET HELP
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 800-273-TALK (8255). (This will change to three digits —988 — in a year or two.)
- Child Priority Response, which is operated under the Division of Prevention & Behavioral Health Services 800-969-HELP (4357).
- ContactLifeline: 800-262-9800
- Crisis Text Line: Text DE to the number 741-741. This is aimed at teens, who often prefer to text.
- Crisis Line for LGBTQ Youth: 866-488-7386
- Delaware Hope Line: 1 (833) 9-HOPEDE or (833) 946-7333
- Sean’s House: 136 W. Main St., Newark
- Delaware Division of Substance Abuse & Mental Health Crisis Intervention Services —Mobile Crisis (for those age 18 or older):
- Statewide: (800) 652-2929
- New Castle County: (302) 577-2484