The Blue Valley school district has lost at least two students and a principal to suicide since the lockdowns last spring. Public health officials admit that anxiety and stress are increasing, but parents’ pleas to send kids to school in-person full time are falling on deaf ears.
It’s deeply personal for one Blue Valley mother, Stacey. Her son, a high school student in Blue Valley, recently attempted suicide. He was hospitalized for the attempt to end his life a little more than a week ago. Stacey isn’t her real name, but to protect her son’s privacy, she’s asked that her real name not be used.
“Every single mental health person I’ve talked to–every single one– has said, this is a kid that under normal circumstances this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “This is because of the isolation and all of the things we’ve done to try and protect him. We’ve hurt him, and it has to stop.”
Like the mental health professionals she’s spoken with since her son’s suicide attempt, Stacey believes that social isolation, frustration with virtual school, and having things to look forward to taken away from him due to COVID-prevention measures contributed to his decision to try to end his life.
“I knew mental health was an issue in our community. We’ve been talking about it,” she said. “And then all of sudden, COVID hit and no one seemed to care anymore. And the very things we were doing to keep them safe is killing kids…When kids isolate themselves, you need to be worried. Now you’re telling them to isolate. When kids spend too much screen time, you need to be worried. Now you’re telling them to have 6-8 hours of screen time a day.”
Link between screen time and suicidality in teens
Researchers have long suspected a link between screen time and depression and suicide attempts in adolescents.
Shari Scott, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Kansas and two other states, said one of the largest studies done on youth, and published in 2011, showed that kids who spend more than five hours a day or 24 hours per week in front of a screen have double the risk of suicidal behaviors, which includes ideation, planning, and attempts that require hospitalization.
“You might think it means simply video gaming, but actually it’s any time in front of a screen, a TV, phone, computer. All of it,” she said.
Scott’s therapy practice is in Prairie Village. When the coronavirus lockdowns began, she anticipated less work, thinking people weren’t going to transition well to sessions by telehealth.
“Instead, however, people have flocked in the door with their teens and youths,” she said.
When a teen in the metro area dies by suicide, Scott is often called to the school to perform critical incident debriefings. She trains others at suicide prevention conferences and offers seminars on stress, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking to schools. Isolation is a huge indicator of suicidality in kids, she said.
“It’s really a catch-22. Teens are especially driven to connect with their friends, but we’re telling them they have to see their peers and do school virtually. We’re putting kids in front of screens all day, but then that’s the only way they have to connect with their peers as well,” she said. “We’re walking kids into suicidality. According to the research, that’s what we’re doing.”
Stubborn focus on positivity rate
Michelle Dombrosky, a member of the Kansas State School Board, believes mental health issues should be factored into the equation as school boards and public officials form policies to deal with COVID. She has attended several school board meetings in her district, including meetings in Spring Hill and Blue Valley, where her kids attend. She is frustrated that board members and teachers are saying that it’s not worth it to change gating criteria (based solely on the positivity rate) if it means the death of one teacher or student to COVID.
“They’ve got to stop saying ‘what if.’ Guess what? We’re already losing kids,” she said.
However, the top mental health public official in Johnson County recently told members of the Spring Hill School Board that deaths by suicide shouldn’t be used as a reason not to take the recommendations of public health officials.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Johnson County’s health department recommendations suggest that students shouldn’t return to classrooms full time until the positivity rate — the number of positive cases in the county divided by the number of tests on a rolling basis–drops below 5 percent. Under the state’s guidelines, schools in only three of 105 counties would have kids in school full time.
“From the public mental health perspective, we have continued to see an increase in the number of youngsters that are coming in and individuals who have never before sought out treatment,” Tim DeWeese, the director of Johnson County Mental Health Department, told the Spring Hill School Board last week. “We’re seeing a continued increase in suicide assessments,” he said. “…Unfortunately, our community has been experiencing an epidemic of suicide for several years. While COVID 19 has certainly impacted our community’s mental health so has the social discord of economic crisis, racism, hatred, the sense of division, and polarization in our community…I don’t believe that mental health or deaths by suicide should be used to ignore recommendations from public health officials.”
Stacey knew her son was disappointed when he learned they wouldn’t be attending school in person. She knew he was frustrated with online learning, but she didn’t know the full extent until the day he attempted to kill himself. Stacey’s first clue that something wasn’t quite right occurred a few weeks ago when she learned that her son wasn’t turning in all of his assignments.
“I thank God for that teacher because it started a process,” Stacey said.
Reaching kids in mental health crisis
She wonders how many other kids are slipping through the cracks with virtual learning because the teachers don’t have time to reach every parent whose children are not logging or not completing assignments.
“I’m going to tell you right now, those teachers and that face-to-face interaction, that’s how we identify those kids,” she said. “I cannot be the only parent; I cannot be the only one that is missing the bigger picture,” she said. “In the ER, there were three other children there, on a weekday at noon, who had attempted suicide.”
In many of the kids Scott now sees in her practice, some of the signs that the kids were not alright included major differences in mood and energy levels, hopelessness, feeling like a burden, and a tendency to isolate or withdraw from others.
“Some of these kids would come to sessions by telehealth, and I could feel depleted and depressed energy through the screen- that they didn’t have anything left to give,” Scott said. “It was scary to me as a practitioner. It still is.”
The Blue Valley School District this week began hybrid learning for middle and high school, in which the student population is separated into two groups that attend in person and online on different days. Other Johnson County schools, like the Gardner Edgerton School District, are still debating whether to allow adolescents and pre-teens back into school buildings. Blue Valley’s decision could have come too late for Stacey’s son.
“I don’t even know how to describe to you what it feels like to know all about suicide prevention, to go to meetings and tell people that kids are suffering, and then to not recognize that it’s not someone else’s kid. It’s your kid,” she said.
It’s frustrating to see school board meetings where the board only cares about one thing — COVID cases, and not the other ripple effects of isolation, Stacey said.
“That narrow thinking is killing our kids. It’s literally killing our kids, and we are not standing up for them,” she said.
Stacey says her son is working hard and getting better every day, but she still faces challenges. She called eight therapists the other day before she found one with an opening before the middle of November.
“If we’re not going to open the schools, then we need to get more mental health beds. There has to be a point where we acknowledge it and work toward a solution,” she said. “We’re not doing either. Nobody is talking about it. Everyone is ignoring it in the name of safety. Who are we protecting?”