Children Out of School Are Dying

John M. Dabbs

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Forced isolation

Suicides among our children are up because of the response to this pandemic. Students dwell in the glare of a computer screen, missing friends, family members, and teachers. It depresses many of them. Some are part of families dealing with lost jobs. This leaves an enormous gap in both living expenses and bills they can't pay.

It forces many students to care for relatives with COVID-19. It leaves other students to grieve for losing loved ones, lack of contact with friends, family, and others who regularly nurtured them. The disease has claimed over 400,000 lives in the United States alone.

Mental health

Mental health problems are a growing problem in children’s visits to hospital emergency rooms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the figure was up 31 percent from March, when the pandemic was declared, to October 2020 in children 12 to 17 years old and 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 (compared with the same period in 2019).

“Students are struggling across the board... It’s the social isolation, the loneliness, the changes in their routines. Students who might never have had a symptom of a mental health condition before the pandemic now have symptoms,” - Jennifer Rothman, Senior Manager for Youth and Young Adult Services - National Alliance on Mental Illness.

There is an increased concern that the coronavirus pandemic could harm the psychological health of millions and further increase the risk of suicide. Based on suicide records during the pandemic, the initial rates declined by at least 14% (according to a Japanese study). These reasons were speculated to be a result of subsidies, reduced working hours, and school closures. The next five months had rates increasing by 16%. The Japanese study found a larger increase among females (37%) and children and adolescents (49%). While the COVID-19 pandemic impacts may continue for some time, governments cannot sustain continued economic stimulus payments and further mitigation measures of an extreme nature. Effective suicide prevention efforts must be a public health priority.

The shock

The COVID-19 pandemic impacts every aspect of our lives. As the pandemic spread globally, anxious people began physical distancing voluntarily. They also reduced their wage-earning activities to prevent infection. Governments implemented sweeping mitigation efforts and interventions in ways previously unseen. We've been asked to limit social contact and avoid social gatherings. Schools, churches, and many business activities were also closed.

Most scientific attention is focused on the disease’s direct risk and preventing it. The end of the pandemic is uncertain, as we begin to see mutations and different strains developing. This continues to raise a concern about the population's mental health. Deaths from suicide continue to increase.

The Awe

Suicide is due to a single cause. The multiple factors related to the prevalence of suicide are complex. We see many culminating circumstances that are fueling the trend:

  • Fear
  • Uneasiness
  • Anxiety
  • Social distancing/Isolation
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Threat of Illness
  • Economic distress
  • Family tension
  • Inactivity

Restricting access to healthcare and mental health services are also culprits, as healthcare systems are forced to limit or refuse access to elective procedures and non-critical services. These in themselves are potentially inducing mental illness and an increase in suicidal behavior.

Band-Aid approach

The severe economic downturn due to the pandemic may also increase death by suicide. Many studies suggest past epidemics, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and the Spanish Flue, led to increased suicide rates. The current pandemic may reduce some stressors from workplace interaction and school stressors - such as bullying. The government's efforts to compact the economic despair with stimulus funds and other measures aren't sustainable and may only lead to these symptoms dragging on further than they would by their own accord.

A June study of 3,300 U.S. high schoolers by America's Promise Alliance showed 30% of young people said they were feeling unhappy or depressed more often.
"Emerging research suggests that the mental health toll of COVID-19 and its associated burdens on youth will be significant and long-lasting...We anticipate increases in depression, anxiety, trauma and grief, and more demand for an array of mental health services and supports for children and families." - Sharon Hoover, Professor of Child Adolescent Psychiatry and Co-Director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

It takes a village

Everyone concerned with the wellbeing of our community has a stake in the development and nurturing of our children. It is imperative that we continue to interact with our friends, neighbors, family members, and children during this pandemic - no matter how long it may drag on, or the draconian measures are implemented as a mitigating effort.

Getting the children back in school must be a priority if we are going to normalize our lives once again. It is paramount in their development and their mental health. Not only does it help them, it helps us by not having to worry about them 24/7 so we can do what we can to put food on the table and get the bills paid.

Public and Mental Health officials will need to work more closely with school systems and school health officials. Their close coordination will be required to identify and work through measures to work students into cohesive groups that are beneficial for their mental health. Such reinforcement and sharing is an important part of growing up, and serves us all well in the long run. One could argue it is a form of group therapy when working correctly.

That isn't to say some of our youth won't need more targeted care and attention. Some people are more isolated and further down the rabbit hole than others can follow and lead them back. Mental health professionals and school counselors are suited to this task due to their training and experience.

The hard part is identifying those who need more attention. That isn't just true for our children. Our friends, family members, and neighbors all need to know we care about them. It is also an important reason for us to reach out by telephone or video chat when we can't interact with them personally due to time and distance - or a pandemic.

The hours of standard time do not play well into our psyche either. We need to remember to open the drapes and curtains wide when the sun is shining and use bright lights in our homes. Those bulbs simulating sunlight are better than the cool-white lights. Choose warm or daylight bulbs for maximum mental health impact in your homes and work environments.

I hope this article has helped shed some light on the issue we face. We must address it as we can now, and prepare to address it as our children return to school. For more information, reach out to your local health department or healthcare provider for additional resources in your area.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN
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