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More youth are dying of suicide, overdose than COVID-19 during pandemic: CDC director

More youth are dying of suicide, overdose than COVID-19 during pandemic: CDC director

COVID-19 has put country in 'state of chronic stress,' suicide prevention advocate says

Suicide and drug overdoses are killing more young people than COVID-19 as the two pre-existing epidemics have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield warns.

In an interview with the Buck Institute for Research on Aging earlier this month, Redfield laid out that suicide and drug overdose have claimed more young lives during the pandemic than COVID-19, a disease that has been attributed to thousands of deaths nationwide this year. 

"We're seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID,” Redfield explained. “We're seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above the excess that we had as background than we are seeing the deaths from COVID.”

A June survey from The Addiction Policy Forum reported a 20% increase in substance abuse with 34% of respondents experiencing a change in their treatment and recovery due to the pandemic. 

The American Medical Association also voiced concern in a July 20 report stating that over 35 states have reported increases in “opioid-related mortality as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder.”

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Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34 in the United States, second only to “unintentional injury,” according to the CDC. Suicide took the lives of nearly 15,000 people within that age bracket in 2018, CDC data suggests. 

Last year, the public health institute reported that the suicide rate for kids 10 to 14 has nearly tripled in the last decade while the suicide rate among older teenagers has increased by 76%.

In his July 14 interview, Redfield emphasized the absence of schools for the increase in suicides, overdoses and general mental health difficulties faced by young people during the pandemic. 

He also said resources to combat these problems have been overworked by COVID-19 or are too dangerous to access.

“You know, a lot of kids get their mental health services, over 7 million, in school,” Redfield explained. “A lot of people get food and nutrition in schools. Schools are really important in terms of mandatory reporting of sexual and child abuse. Obviously, socialization is important.”

Redfield said that the "cost to our nation in continuing to keep these schools closed is substantial." 

Susan Tellone, the clinical director at The Society for Prevention of Teen Suicide in New Jersey, told The Christian Post that there is an increased concern surrounding suicide and overdose, most of which has come from virus-induced chronic stress.

All people experience acute stress, which is a short-term feeling that is not always negative, she said. Chronic stress, though, is ongoing stress that lasts months to years and can lead to an increase in mental health issues like depression. The increase in the U.S. is caused in part by widespread chronic stress, Tellone said.

“COVID has put all the country, not just youth, in a state of chronic stress,” she explained. “That’s been across the board. I’ve been saying we’re all in the same storm, but in different boats.”

According to Tellone, people are experiencing stress in different ways. While some are heavily impacted by physical isolation, others feel the stress from financial burdens or loss of work.

For young people, the pandemic has provided a variety of losses. 

High school seniors have lost the opportunity to partake in graduation ceremonies and milestones. Social interactions have changed form during the virus, which has become a difficult transition for some.

“Some are stuck in toxic environments where they’re around domestic, substance or sexual abuse,” Tellone stated. “It’s the uncertainty that creates this stress. You can’t make plans or know the future. There’s not an end in sight and it is getting to feel exhausting for some people.”

This is not true for all young people, though. Some young people have enjoyed doing school work from home and have felt less pressure since COVID-19 began, which Tellone defined as a “mixed bag” of reactions toward COVID-19 closures.

Despite the increased demand for mental health resources to combat the increased suicides and overdoses, Tellone said the virus presents an opportunity to end the stigma of talking about mental health. She believes this could lead to further advancements in study and treatment.

“Because we know mental health is going to be an issue, we could all understand that if you don’t have financial means there is still help,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to recognize that mental health is as important as physical health.”


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Teen suicides are on the rise. Here’s what parents can do to slow the trend.

Teen suicides are on the rise. Here’s what parents can do to slow the trend.
March 18, 2019 at 3:00 a.m. PDT

The two middle-schoolers had never met in person, but they both struggled with depression and were drawn to the same dark group chat. When one wrote that he planned to kill himself, the other took an image of his post. “I’m so freaked out,” she told me, her school counselor. “Please find him and make sure he’s okay.”

With some assistance, I was able to figure out what Washington-area school the boy attended. When I called his principal, she was bewildered. Her student could be disruptive in class, she told me, but he didn’t seem sad.

I wasn’t surprised. In early adolescence, depression can resemble rage or irritability or be mistaken for normal mood fluctuations. She acted quickly to make sure the student was safe. At a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting a spike in suicide rates among 10- to 14-year-olds, educators are leaving nothing to chance.

“When talking about adolescent suicide, half the time we’re talking about kids who are depressed, and half the time we’re talking about kids who are impulsive,” says Ken Ginsburg, an adolescent developmental pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication. “Kids this age can’t articulate their pain as clearly as older teens, their peers are less mature and don’t know how to recognize the signs, and they don’t want to snitch.”

Put this all together, and it’s easy to see why parents can be the last to know their child is suffering, says Christina Conolly, director of psychological services for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Adolescent children are far less likely to commit suicide than adults, but they have not been immune from a nationwide increase in suicides over the past two decades. The CDC reports that from 1999 to 2017, the suicide rate among boys ages 10 to 14 grew from 1.9 suicides per 100,000 people to 3.3. Among girls, suicides roughly tripled from 0.5 per 100,000 to 1.7. Researchers recently reported in the journal Pediatrics that while 50 percent of parents are unaware that their 11- to 17-year-olds are having suicidal thoughts, younger teens are more likely than older teens to deny their pain.

To plug the gap on the issue, Conolly implemented the Signs of Suicide Prevention Program in every middle school in her district this year. Students learn to recognize the signs of depression, care for struggling friends and report concerns to adults.

As depression and anxiety skyrocket, communities are scrambling to meet kids’ needs with limited resources. Here are six ways parents and schools can combine forces to tackle the spike in tween suicide.

Maintain open communication

Two-way communication is critical, but it can be thwarted by logistical and emotional barriers. Educators may feel unequipped to help distressed students or apprehensive about calling home with nonacademic concerns. To build their comfort, many schools now offer mental-health training to teachers.

One program, Youth Mental Health First Aid, partnered with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to teach school personnel how to “recognize the signs of a mental health or addiction crisis, initiate a conversation, and connect young people to professional help and community resources,” says Betsy Schwartz, who oversees the program at the National Council for Behavioral Health.

Even teachers who would readily intervene are squeezed for time. “I want our children’s needs to be met, but I also want people to understand how much teachers do every day,” says Traci Townsend, principal of Silver Creek Middle School in Kensington. Parents can help. To improve dialogue, signal that you’re open to hearing unsettling news about your child.

“Adopting an accusatory or defensive posture will get in the way of sharing key information, such as ups and downs of the young person’s mood, concerns brought forward by peers, and changes in a student’s academic performance, that can be key to keeping students safe and making sure that treatments are working as they should,” says psychologist Lisa Damour, author of “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”

Transparency is critical in middle school, says social worker Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do.”

“When we most need to have eyes and ears on the ground, communication really drops off,” she says. “Email the school and say, ‘Everything seems fine, but what are you seeing?' ” Be proactive and alert the school when your child needs more support, whether they’re grieving a death, adjusting to a change in family structure or coping with depression.

Susan Levine, the resource counselor at Silver Creek, is seeing a shift toward more openness, but it comes with a twist. “Parents are more honest, but children are less resilient,” she says. “If a kid’s friend says 20 nice things and one bad thing, we can spend a whole day undoing that.”

Prioritize self-directed play

As recess decreases and testing increases, there has been a rise in children’s mental disorders, says Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and the author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.” The cause and effect should be obvious, he notes. “Life without play is depressing.”

“Children are almost like prisoners today,” he says. “They’re constantly being monitored, their sense of control over their lives has declined, and that sets them up for depression and anxiety.” Instead of just going out to play, they are frequently put in competitive, anxiety-provoking conditions, such as trying to earn a spot on a team or win a game.

Gray co-founded Let Grow with Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free-Range Kids, to help communities prioritize play. Michael Hynes, the schools superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District in New York, now offers elementary and secondary students one hour of self-directed play before school. “It’s the closest thing to a silver bullet I’ve ever seen in my 20-plus years serving children in education,” he says. “Kids are less anxious, upset and depressed.”

Parents can help change the tide. Make the case for more recess at school and prioritize unstructured play at home. Organize weekend block parties and coordinate with neighbors to send kids outside at the same time to just play.

Identify helpers

To normalize help-seeking behavior, prompt kids to silently name the adult they’d approach in a crisis. When I do this with my middle school students, I invite anyone who is stumped to come meet with me. Willing educators can self-identify as helpers, too. Teachers may need backup support, but Morin urges them not to send a student to their counselor alone. For starters, the American School Counselor Association is reporting an average student-to-school counselor ratio of 406 to 1, so they may not even know that person. “They also might not know what to share, so walk them there and say, ‘This is what I’m hearing,’ ” Morin says. “It’s powerful for a teacher to say, ‘I really know this kid, he’s not a complainer, and here’s some background.’ ”

Parents also can make an effort to be a trusted adult in their kid’s friends’ lives. Ask questions and show genuine interest in their well-being. If your own child is suffering, convey to them that they’re not alone. Ginsburg recommends saying, “I feel like you’re really uncomfortable, and I need you to know it doesn’t have to be that way. You deserve to feel better, you can get better, and I will be by your side as you do.”

Sweat the small stuff and the big stuff

A child’s concern may seem overblown, but take it seriously anyway. Middle schoolers have intense emotions but little perspective. “It’s easy for them to imagine that every circumstance is an emergency,” Ginsburg says.

That said, some experiences should raise a red flag. Bullying, for example, is strongly linked to suicidal thoughts and attempts, says Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University. Listen to your children, validate their experiences and involve them in problem-solving. “Well-meaning parents and educators need to avoid secondary victimization by responding callously or incompletely when a tween or teen summons enough courage to tell them what’s going on in the first place,” he says.

Stay calm, engaged and nonjudgmental. “If a child says, ‘I hate myself and want to die,’ don’t respond with, ‘But you’re so great at this and great at that,’ ” says psychologist Mary Alvord, the author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.” “Pull from them, ‘What have you done well this month?' Give choices; ‘Were you nice to people? Were you a loving or helpful son or daughter?’ ”

Alvord created the Resilience Builder Program, now in several schools in the District and Maryland, to build kids’ sense of agency. “We might say, imagine you didn’t do well on a test and were really upset,” she says. “We explain that if you’re reactive, you rip up the paper or cry. If you’re passive, you hold it in, which doesn’t make it go away. But if you’re proactive, you ask, ‘Is there extra credit? Could I study more next time?’ ” At home, ask your child, “What can you control and what do you need to let go? How can you take initiative?”

Bolster kids’ sense of belonging

When students leave elementary school, they trade the constancy of a homeroom teacher for a revolving cast of educators. “They can feel progressively alienated from staff in the school at a time when they need nonparental adults more than ever,” says Robert Dodd, principal at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.

In response, some schools are prioritizing relationship-building. White Oak and Argyle middle schools in Montgomery County implemented Project Success to make it possible for some sixth-graders to spend half of each schoolday with one teacher and an intact peer group. The data shows it’s working incredibly well, says Dodd, who founded the program after many years as a middle school principal. “These kids are more likely to feel their teachers value and care about them and their peers want to help them.”

Care starts at the top and is contagious, Townsend says. “When you feel care from your colleagues, you pass that down to kids. You’re more likely to sit down next to that one kid in the cafeteria who is by himself and say, 'What are you doing — where’s everybody?’ That’s care.”

Parents can help strengthen community ties, too. Get to know other families in the school and make a pact to exchange information, whether you hear that a child is giving away prized possessions, making comments about dying or disengaging from friends, all signs of serious trouble.

Encourage kids to care for one another

Middle schoolers may think they’re a bad friend if they disclose that a peer is off-kilter. “We give them permission and tell them it’s more important to save someone’s life,” Conolly says. “We say, ‘Put your phone down, have a conversation, tell them you want what’s best for them, and you’re going to seek help.’” Parents can relay that same advice.

Kids can even make a pledge to prioritize emotional health, says consultant Mimi Darmstadter, the parent chair of Stressbusters Committee at Walt Whitman High School. The PTSA subcommittee coordinated with school officials to distribute “Oath of Wellness” cards that every student could sign. Dodd says he hopes to duplicate the effort in the cluster’s middle and elementary schools, and parents can do the same exercise at home. Ask your child how they plan to take care of themselves and look out for others. Then model self-care and self-compassion in your own life, and verbalize any strategies you use to cope with frustration, sadness or disappointment.

“Parents and schools have to work closely together to evaluate shared norms about parenting,” Dodd says. “Are we completely performance-oriented, or are we modeling empathy, resilience and wellness?”


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Youth Depression, Suicide Increasing During Pandemic Response

Youth Depression, Suicide Increasing During Pandemic Response

Government policies meant to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in unintended consequences that threaten lives—including, tragically, the lives of young people who are generally spared from the worst effects of COVID-19.

School closures, stay-at-home orders, and shutdowns of businesses deemed “non-essential” are contributing to surging rates of depression and suicide among young people, as well as rising incidences of drug overdoses and related deaths.

The New York Times reported this week that an alarming increase in student suicides has prompted schools in Las Vegas to move quickly to reopen schools for in-person learning. In the Clark County, Nevada school district, 18 students took their lives during the nine months of school closures, which is double the number of students who committed suicide in the district in all of 2019. The youngest child was just nine years old.

According to the Times: “One student left a note saying he had nothing to look forward to.”

Rising Youth Despair

Youth despair amid lockdowns and related public health orders appears to be worsening. While US aggregate suicide data for 2020 won’t be available for a couple of years, due to reporting lags, state and county level data reveal dismal trends. In Pima County, Arizona suicides were up 67 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year for children ages 12 to 17, and statewide childhood suicides had also increased since 2019. West Virginia has seen a spike in student suicide attempts during the pandemic. Parts of Wisconsin reported skyrocketing suicide rates among young people in 2020, while hospitals in Texas and North Carolina are seeing more young suicidal patients.

CDC data show a 24 percent increase in emergency room mental health visits for children ages 5 to 11, compared to 2019. Among adolescents ages 12 to 17, that increase is 31 percent. Last summer, the CDC reported that one in four young adults had contemplated suicide in the previous month.

Childhood and adolescent mental health has been deteriorating over the past decade, with youth depression and suicide rates climbing. But the isolation and hopelessness brought on by the pandemic response has exacerbated this trend. Earlier this month, a high school student and football star in Illinois, who had struggled previously with depression, committed suicide. His father says that his son’s “depression worsened significantly after Covid hit.”

Another high schooler and football player in Maine, Spencer Smith, took his own life last month after leaving a note saying that he felt locked in his house and the peer separation with remote learning was too much for him to bear any longer. “The kids need their peers more than ever now,” his father, Jay Smith, said. “They need face-to-face contact so they can let their emotions out.”

A Holistic Approach to Public Health

Some researchers recognized early on in the pandemic that there would be significant unintended consequences of lockdowns and government orders, warning of high mental health costs and other declines in public health. “The COVID-19 crisis may increase suicide rates during and after the pandemic,” noted a June 2020 paper in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine. “Mental health consequences of the COVID-19 crisis including suicidal behavior are likely to be present for a long time and peak later than the actual pandemic.”

Later, the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, a document that urges a “focused protection” response to COVID-19 rather than universally restrictive pandemic policies, explained that public health policy must look at all aspects of public health—not just one virus and not just near-term effects.

Harvard University biostatistician, Martin Kulldorff, told The Wall Street Journal that “you can’t just look at COVID, you have to look holistically at health and consider the collateral damage.” One of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, Kulldorff adds: “You can’t just look short-term.”

What Kulldorff and other public health researchers expose is the fact that there are tradeoffs to any policy. “If it saves just one life,” a mantra echoed during the COVID response as a rallying cry for lockdowns, fails to acknowledge the lives damaged or lost due to these lockdown policies. Lockdown harms and deaths are as real as COVID harms and deaths and should be taken seriously when considering a holistic pandemic response.

Economists scrutinize tradeoffs, and many have been highlighting COVID-related tradeoffs since last spring. As FEE’s Antony Davies and James Harrigan wrote in April: “Regardless of whether we acknowledge them, tradeoffs exist. And acknowledging tradeoffs is an important part of constructing sound policy.”

This basic economic principle was beautifully articulated by Henry Hazlitt in his classic book, Economics in One Lesson:

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Nine-tenths of the economic fallacies that are working such dreadful harm in the world today are the result of ignoring this lesson. Those fallacies all stem from one of two central fallacies, or both: that of looking only at the immediate consequences of an act or proposal, and that of looking at the consequences only for a particular group to the neglect of other groups.

As data on the unintended consequences of pandemic policy becomes gloomier, policy makers are beginning to acknowledge tradeoffs. School reopenings in Las Vegas are one positive sign of this policy shift, but more needs to be done to loosen harmful pandemic restrictions and allow for social and economic life to rebound.

The justification for the widespread lockdowns and pandemic restrictions enacted since last spring was to save lives, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that these mandatory measures are costing lives and may be ineffective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

This is particularly important now as more research shows that the harms of lockdowns and related policies may outweigh their benefits. A new peer-reviewed study in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation finds that restrictive, mandatory policies may not be any more effective at controlling the spread of the coronavirus than more voluntary measures.

"We do not question the role of all public health interventions, or of coordinated communications about the epidemic, but we fail to find an additional benefit of stay-at-home orders and business closures,” the researchers conclude.

There is no perfect policy response to a pandemic, but acknowledging tradeoffs, examining consequences across groups and over time, and advocating for a more voluntary, decentralized approach can minimize human costs and maximize overall health and well-being.


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