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Report: Remote learning may have helped curb some youth suicides

 A student at Vestal High School chalks an inspirational message on the sidewalk outside the school as part of a mental health activity last fall.
Megan Zerez
A student at Vestal High School chalks an inspirational message on the sidewalk outside the school as part of a mental health activity last fall.

This story deals with suicide. If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.

In New York, the number of school age children who died by suicide dipped during the early pandemic. Recent provisional research from the National Bureau of Economics Research shows those numbers began to rise only after students returned to school in person, and it's likely remote learning helped bring the numbers down.

Researcher Ben Hansen of the University of Oregon, who co-authored the working paper*, said the number of suicide deaths among K-12 students tends to fluctuate based on when kids are in school. For example, there tend to be fewer suicide deaths on weekends, or during summer or winter breaks.

Hansen said his initial findings suggest that schools going virtual in March of 2020 had a similar effect — despite all the disruption, fewer kids died by suicide. When students returned to school in person, the trend was reversed.

"When we get to finally August and September of 2020, when the [first schools] begin to reopen, indeed you start to see youth suicides rising again," Hansen said.

Hansen said the trend may be tied to a number of factors — for instance, Hansen points out, there's a strong correlation between bullying and suicidal ideation. For some kids, remote learning may have provided a respite from physical and emotional bullying from peers.

Many kids have been back in school in person for two years now. WSKG's analysis of provisional CDC data from 2021 and 2022 shows in much of the country, the number of youth suicides hasn’t only gone back up, it's surpassed pre-pandemic levels — which were already at a historic high.

In New York, suicide deaths also went up after lockdowns were lifted. But unlike the U.S. as a whole, New York's numbers are still lower than they were before the pandemic.

It’s not yet clear why New York seems to be doing better than other states. It's also possible the numbers could look very different once finalized.

Hansen cautioned mortality data represents an incomplete picture of mental health in schools. The data doesn’t count the number of kids who experience suicidal ideations, or those who attempt suicide and survive. It also doesn’t count the number of kids who are living with other serious mental health concerns.

Lisa Hoeschele heads Family and Children’s in Cortland. The group helps fund school-based mental health clinics across the Southern Tier. She spoke at a recent town hall.

"We've seen a 350 to 400 percent increase in the severity of need in the school buildings when it comes to mental health," Hoeschele said. "That's a huge increase over the past three years."

Hoeschele said some kids may be experiencing suicidal ideations at younger ages.

"For example, we had a five-year-old who actually — with intent — attempted suicide," Hoeschele said. "A five-year-old."

Researcher Ben Hansen said he doesn’t want people to get the wrong impression — parents shouldn't see the study as a sign to pull their kids out of public school.

"Most kids are better off being back in school in person, like the majority, the vast majority of kids," Hansen said. "But there are some kids who probably were already isolated at school to begin with, for which the COVID isolation actually might have been protective for them."

And now that COVID isolation is largely gone, Hansen said it’s important for parents and educators to recognize when their students are experiencing stress, isolation or bullying and to intervene before it’s too late.

*Working papers are provisional research — they haven't yet been peer reviewed. The final results or findings may vary.

Copyright 2023 WSKG News. To see more, visit WSKG News.

Megan Zerez, Report for America corps member