A recent New York Times story noted a cluster of suicides in Clark County, Nevada that may have prompted the reopening of schools. There's no hard data linking remote learning to suicide, but experts say teens are struggling right now. Here's why—and how you can help.

By Beth Ann Mayer
February 04, 2021
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An image of a teenager during virtual learning.
Credit: Getty Images.

The debate over whether to reopen schools for in-person instruction is both polarizing and politically-charged. Some feel that students should be back in the classroom, arguing that children largely are not the main spreaders of COVID-19; others lean on the side of remote learning, which according to a poll released by the National Parents Union in October, is still being utilized by 76 percent of students in the U.S.

Neither is perfect and both have their risks, but most notably, when it comes to remote learning, some are worried about the mental health implications that learning via a screen could have on kids. Specifically, Clark County, Nevada, made headlines earlier this month when the New York Times reported that 18 students had died by suicide since school buildings shuttered in March.

For many, the report was alarming. But to experts, it's no surprise that kids—specifically teens—are struggling. From April to October of 2020, emergency room visits related to mental health increased 31 percent in children ages 12 to 17 from the same period in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Another 2020 survey of 3,300 high school students found that 30 percent felt unhappy or depressed in recent months.

No one can say with any certainty that bringing students back to the classroom would mitigate the mental health issues in teens. It's also not yet clear if deaths by suicide increased in teens or in the general population in 2020—the CDC has not released that information. But experts say we need to talk about the effects remote learning and the pandemic as a whole are having on teenagers.

"Talking about it removes the stigma and helps parents watch for the warning signs and collaborate with a school district to advocate for their child," says Ashley Plotnick, LSW, an Illinois-based psychotherapist.

Here, how the pandemic and remote learning are affecting teens' mental health, red flags that a teenager is struggling, and how to talk to them.

Why Teens Are Struggling Right Now

While there isn't yet 2020 data on the teen suicide rate, suicide was on the rise pre-pandemic. In 2019, for example, 18.8 percent of teens said they had seriously considered suicide—a figure that's up five percentage points from 2009, according to the CDC.

To this, some experts point to both the stressful, fast-paced nature of today's society and living even more in an online world. "When I was a child, I didn't have a cell phone," says Plotnick. "I didn't have the pressure of having to navigate social media."

Ninety-five percent of teens said they had access to a smartphone in 2018, up from 73 percent in 2014-15, and 45 percent of teens reported they were online "almost constantly." Research is mixed, but one recent study linked new media usage (such as social media and smartphones) with an increased risk of death by suicide and depression.

"The long-term isolation on youth is hurting them," says Keita Franklin, LCSW, Ph.D., chief clinical officer at Loyal Source, a Florida-based government health care solution provider. "So much of their development relies on interaction with peers and friends."

Even more: Teens are not only disconnected from friends, but educators and school staff who often pick up on red flags a student is struggling and make referrals for help, says Gail Saltz, M.D., a New York-based psychiatrist. "Many kids get their mental health care in school and they might be losing out on those interventions now. Mental health problems tend to get worse with time if left untreated." Suicide is a potential outcome to untreated mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, she adds.

Of course, it's not just more time online or remote learning that could be contributing to stress and anxiety in teens. Just like it's impacting adults, the global pandemic is affecting teens, too, says Dr. Saltz. Teens might be dealing with financial stress or food insecurity if a caregiver lost a job. They may be grieving the loss of a relative to COVID-19 or afraid for their own health.

Experts are particularly worried about the toll the pandemic and remote learning is taking on Black teens. Students of color are more likely to live in remote-only districts, and even if a district offers some in-person learning, Black parents are keeping their children fully remote. In New York City, nearly 12,000 more white students than Black students returned to the classroom in the fall.

Statistics also suggest Black people are more likely to get COVID-19 and die from it than white people, are more likely to lose a job, and are less likely to get hired. This may be contributing to higher depression and anxiety levels. A survey showed Black people are experiencing mental health issues at a higher rate than white people during the pandemic. And while vaccines offer a light at the end of the tunnel, Black people are being vaccinated at lower rates. Government and public health officials haven't released data on why Black people are getting the vaccine at lower rates, but a history of mistrust stemming from unethical experimentation may play a role in vaccine hesitancy. And, anecdotally, wealthier white people are receiving the vaccine more often even in poor neighborhoods.

It could set up a "perfect storm" for a potential increase in mental health issues as well as suicidal ideation, Dr. Saltz says.

"The reality is this pandemic is hitting minority communities much harder—more loss, more death, fewer vaccines," says Dr. Saltz. "It's all less of the good stuff, more of the bad stuff."

Fortunately, help is available—a teen just might not ask for it. That's why observing a child and picking up on changes in behavior is critical in getting help.

Red Flags Your Teen May Be Considering Suicide

Dr. Saltz notes suicide is an impulsive act but there are often warning signs beforehand. All three experts agree parents should look out for the following signs that a teen may be considering suicide:

  • Change in sleeping behavior
  • Withdrawal from you, friends, and activities they used to love
  • Self-mutilation (Dr. Saltz says that wearing long sleeves more often or keeping razor blades and paper clips in their rooms when they usually wouldn't are signs a child may be self-mutilating)
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Increased irritability
  • Talking about committing suicide or saying things like, "The world would be better without me."
  • Giving things away

Dr. Saltz also says that guilt and shame—perhaps because of feeling bullied, excluded, or regretting a sexual act—are drivers of suicide.

Fortunately, mental health issues are treatable and suicide is a preventable public health crisis. If your teen is experiencing depression, anxiety, or contemplating suicide, they—and you—are not alone, and getting help sooner rather than later is critical.

How to Help

These tips can help you help your teen. And if you're afraid your teen could be considering suicide, stay with them and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. A trained expert is available 24/7 to help.

Create opportunities for conversation

As much as you want your teen to share their feelings, they may not do it right away. Simply being around your teen, though, creates space for natural conversation. "Sometimes sitting next to them to watch a television show or going to say goodnight creates an opportunity for parents to connect with their child," says Plotnick.

And while lockdowns have changed the way we live, you can still try engaging your teen in a COVID-safe activity. Getting out of the house and away from distractions, such as the television or video games, gives teens another low-pressure opportunity to talk. Plus, time spent outdoors and with loved ones are both beneficial activities from a mental health standpoint. "If you are on a car ride or a hike, the conversation is just part of the activity," says Franklin.

Offer them resources

Subtle attempts at striking up a conversation about mental health don't always work with teens. In these cases, Dr. Saltz advises parents to pivot. "It's fair to say, 'You may not be so comfortable telling me everything. That's OK. There can be a family member or someone you might feel more comfortable talking with,'" she says. "Moreover, that is when it might be a good time to say, 'I think it would be great if you have someone to talk to.' And help them make an appointment [with a therapist]."

Share what you see

Teens are known for being moody, but experts advise against just chalking up potential mental health issues to hormones. Instead of dismissing behavior changes, Franklin suggests taking a more direct approach. "I encourage parents to share what they see," she says. "Try, 'I see that you are sleeping a lot,' and offer concern and compassion. 'Is there something I can do to be helpful?' Share something you are willing to do to be helpful."

This assistance may include an appointment with a mental health professional or an offer to help with homework in a subject where a teen is struggling.

Talk about suicide

Franklin says adults are often afraid to ask a teen if they have considered suicide because they think it will put the idea in their heads. But asking someone if they have considered suicide does not increase the likelihood that they will die by suicide. In fact, "Asking about suicide is one of the most important things you can ask as a parent," she says. "It opens the door to the conversation if they are and removes the stigma."

If you live in a district that has experienced one or a cluster of deaths by suicide, it's especially important to have a conversation with your teen. Research shows that for every one death by suicide, 135 people are exposed—and if a classmate died by suicide, your teen has been exposed. Research suggests this exposure is a predictor of death by suicide or suicidal ideation.

Avoid talking about how a teen died by suicide and, rather, focus on the emotions they may have been feeling. "Try, 'Johnny was depressed. When we are feeling depressed, it's really important to talk about it. There are so many resources in school and therapists that are here for you,'" says Plotnick.

Reach out

If your child is threatening suicide, has attempted it, or if you're in doubt, stay with your teen and call 9-1-1 or the suicide hotline at 800-273-8255. You can also log onto the prevention website and chat with an expert trained in suicide intervention at any time. "I think it's important that parents trust their gut," says Plotnick. "If you have a sense that your child is struggling and needs space, there's nothing wrong with reaching out."