Study Finds Extended School Closures Linked to Rise in Youth Suicidality: Urgent Reevaluation of COVID-19 Policies Needed
A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School has highlighted a concerning association between prolonged school closures and increases in youth suicidality during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings emphasize the need for urgent reevaluation of current policies surrounding school closures to ensure they align with the mental health needs of young individuals.
The study compared the rates of emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts in 12 to 17-year-olds in Texas and Massachusetts. Interestingly, Texas, which had a greater emphasis on in-person education from 2020 to 2022, experienced lower rates of emergency department visits related to youth suicidality compared to Massachusetts. This discrepancy suggests a potential correlation between prolonged school closures and the rise in mental health challenges among young people.
In 2020, both states universally closed schools between March and August, leading to a notable increase in emergency department cases for suspected suicide attempts. Massachusetts reported 115 suicides ED visits per month prior to the closures, which rose to 176 during the 2020-21 academic year. Similarly, Texas witnessed an increase from 505 to 756 cases of youth suicidality visits during the same period.
However, a significant difference arose when the states started to reopen schools. Texas took a faster approach to school reopening, with 40 to 60 percent of public schools resuming in-person education by September 2020. In contrast, only 20 to 40 percent of Massachusetts schools followed suit. By January 2021, 80 to 100 percent of Texas schools were providing in-person education, while Massachusetts lagged behind with 20 to 40 percent of schools doing the same.
While another study reported a decrease in teenage suicides during the initial lockdowns, numerous studies suggest a deterioration in adolescent mental health and an increase in suicidality overall. Dr. Yael Dvir, the lead author and associate professor of psychiatry at UMass Chan Medical School, acknowledges that different subgroups of teens may have responded differently to the pandemic and school closures. Some might have shown improvement, but the overall trend indicates an exacerbation of mental health issues.
Pediatricians unrelated to the study have also noticed a correlation between school closures and a rise in mental illness among young people. Dr. Derek Husmann, a pediatrician from Texas, reported a significant increase in mental health concerns due to the pandemic and school closures. Dr. Renata Moon, formerly associated with the University of Washington, echoed this observation, stating that she witnessed a surge in anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm among teenagers and pre-teens during school closures.
The experts agree that the baseline stress levels for individuals have significantly risen since the pandemic began, leading to an overwhelming demand for mental health counseling services. Dr. Husmann believes that open discussions should have been held to consider focused protection for vulnerable individuals, highlighting that children faced minimal risks of fatality from COVID-19 infections.
The findings from this study call for a critical examination of current COVID-19 policies and their impact on the mental health of young individuals. While the primary concern during the pandemic has been physical health and safety, it is essential to prioritize the psychological well-being of children and adolescents. As schools reopen, policymakers must take into account the potential long-term effects of prolonged closures on youth mental health and ensure appropriate support systems are in place to address these challenges effectively.