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Unpacking the effects of COVID on teen suicide


Headlines since the September release of student assessment results on the NAEP test, the Nation’s Report Card, have loudly echoed the devastating degree of learning loss children experienced during the pandemic’s disruption to schools.

The loss is real, and schools are using numerous strategies to make up for the losses.

What is notably consistent in all the discussions surrounding assessment results is a loud call to ensure that all students are “back in school.”

As we put time between us and the pandemic, additional observations can be made about the effect on students and learning. In a December 2022 study of “In-Person Schooling and Youth Suicide,” the National Bureau of Economic Research underscores a pre-pandemic trend that the pandemic reinforced.

Across several studies, it has been observed that student mental health is affected by school, particularly in-person school. In a 2015 study, as reported in Psychology Today, researcher Collin Lueck examined the rate of psychiatric visits at the Los Angeles pediatric emergency mental health department and he found that the rate was 118% higher when school was in session compared to when school was not.

In a separate study from Connecticut, emergency youth mental health intakes were less than half during the summer months compared to when school was in session. This same pattern, also reflected in teen suicide data, has been present for decades.

COVID provided a unique opportunity to examine this trend, primarily because of the pandemic’s disruptive nature on school. Now, researchers could closely correlate the connection between teen suicide and school attendance to see how it tracked with the disruption of school.

Consistent with previous findings, researchers were able to observe, once again, that teen suicide increases during the school year and decreases when students are out of school.

The researchers then applied this hypothesis to the effect of school disruptions from COVID. What they found should make us pause and consider how we educate children.

During periods of school closure, teen suicide decreased. When schools returned to in-person school, teen suicide returned to higher incidences. During periods when some schools were in-person and others were not, the schools in-person had higher rates of teen suicide, while the schools in remote-learning areas had fewer teen suicides. The researchers report, “Our preferred estimates suggest that a move from fully closed to fully reopened schools was associated with an approximate 15% increase in youth suicide.” This is a deafening statement that is difficult to ignore.

It should not be construed to imply that universal remote learning should make a rapid comeback or that schools should close their doors. Instead, the findings stress the need to have deeper conversations about our children’s mental health and a better understanding of how school is structured and affects student well-being.

This research provides an opportunity to think hard and question how we do school.

Frank Edelblut is commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education/InsideSources





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