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Teen mental health in the remote school

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on numerous constituencies, some directly in our line of sight, others, obscured from view. No demographic has been immune from its long and dangerous tentacles – and none more so than our young people, who are being crushed by the weight of a mental health crisis whose effects will be felt for years to come.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the leading cause of death among high school-aged youths 14-18 after unintentional injuries, based on their 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. “Although fatal (ie, suicide) and nonfatal (eg, suicide attempts) suicidal behaviors are a public health concern across the life span, they are of particular concern for youths and young adults 10-24 years,” the survey said.

Even before the stress and isolation of the pandemic, from 2009 to 2018, suicide rates among youths aged 14-18 years increased by 61.7 percent, from six to 9.7 per 100,000 population. In 2019 alone, almost 19 percent of students seriously considered suicide.

While statistics are not available for 2020 and early 2021, experts report anecdotal reports that suicide attempts and suicide ideation has increased, to the point that fully one in four young adults are in such dire straits mentally that they are or have considered taking their own life. The additional stress to teens and young adults in the last year is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put their life on hold and placed them in isolation – a direct conflict to their natural biological development.

The first priority must be for schools to actively and fully move to in-person education, and maintain that, with their most important consideration the education and well-being of students. Birmingham Public Schools, notably, has worked to get students back to full in-person education by mid-March, with the Bloomfield Hills Schools board of education reacting more hesitantly, but still moving towards a March 22 return date. Both districts had students in a hybrid-form for parts of the year, but that often left students between two worlds, teachers preparing multiple platforms and parents struggling for child care.

Mental health experts, coaches, teachers, MHSAA, and others note the long-term damage to a young population that has lost not just a year of education but also an important part of their identity in the personal development continuum with the loss or suspension of sports and other extracurricular activities. It's a major downside to living in a Zoom world.

A further loss for young adults trapped in the remote world is the inability of educators and administrators to identifying those students who could “fall through the cracks” – and who can benefit from receiving a visit with a student counselor or receiving mental health care. Yet, in too many schools, counselors are buried with too many students and too few resources as they work with students to address struggles with mental health, suicide, stress and bullying.

In February, state Rep. Felicia Brabec (D-Pittsfield) introduced House Bill 4156 to require schools in Michigan to employ one school guidance counselor for every 450 students enrolled. The bill is currently with the education committee. It is imperative to reach out to our state representatives – for most of us, Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township) to emphasize the importance of the passage of this bill for young adults.

It's critical we not lose one more teen – much less an entire generation – to the scourge of a mental health crisis.


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