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How the pandemic is intensifying depression and anxiety among teenagers

This week marks a full year since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic, and experts are increasingly concerned about the toll it is taking on the mental health of young people in the United States. With in-person classes closed for months for many students, there are also concerns the risks of youth suicide are being exacerbated. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week marks a full year since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic. And experts are increasingly concerned about the toll it's taking on the mental health of young people in this country.

    With in person classes closed for months for many students, there also are concerns the risks of youth suicide are being exacerbated.

    Stephanie Sy has this report.

    And a warning to underline: This story deals with sensitive subject matter.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Since boyhood, Toby Gard needed to be on the move. Growing up in a small ski town west of Denver, he was well-known and well-loved.

  • Heather Gard:

    He seemed to have a really bright future ahead of him and started his freshman year knowing somebody in every class and every group and could have been in any group he wanted to.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But in his second semester of sophomore year, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Toby's high school closed. Sports were canceled. He had had suicidal thoughts before.

  • Heather Gard:

    Had it not gone into lockdown, he would still be here, because he would have gone into lacrosse practice. He would have been getting the exercise. He would have been getting the connection with the team. He would have been getting those needs met, and not dwelling on the negative.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Last April, Heather Gard lost her first-born son to suicide.

  • Heather Gard:

    He said: "Mom, I just don't know what to do." It's the last thing he said to me.

    I went and got in the bath, came out, see if he wanted to get in and found him. He was already gone, called 911, started CPR, but he was gone.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Experts are not yet drawing any direct lines between youth suicide and the pandemic, but they do say the pandemic has added stress to young people, while taking away some important stress relief.

  • Lisa Horowitz:

    We don't know about the impact yet of COVID-19 on kids and on the suicide rate, but we do know that there are some risk factors that are being exacerbated.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Lisa Horowitz is a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and has studied suicide for decades.

  • Lisa Horowitz:

    Forced isolation and kids not being in school and being cut off from their social contacts, that really makes it even harder — when you're struggling with any kind of mental health issues.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Prior to the pandemic, suicide was the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24. For that same age group, the suicide rate increased by more than 50 percent between 2007 and 2017. Since the pandemic began, local officials around the country have reported more youth suicides. Certain youth are at even greater risk.

  • Tia Dole:

    It's really — heartbreaking, I think, is the word that I would use to describe the situations that young people find themselves in simply because of who they are.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Tia Dole is the chief clinical operations officer at The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people.

  • Tia Dole:

    A lot of young people are now being, like, pulled back into the home, when they wouldn't normally be. It's much harder to keep secrets.

    And I think that that's actually been super stressful, because, in some ways, you're putting yourself back in the closet, as it were, in order to maintain peace in the home.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Before the pandemic, lesbian, gay and bisexual teens were more than three times as likely to have suicidal thoughts than their heterosexual peers. Dole says being a member of a racial minority can also raise the risk of suicide.

  • Tia Dole:

    If you are a person who is in a community that is marginalized, you're going to experience more stressors than other people. The research shows that young Black boys, for instance, are much more likely to complete suicide than other populations.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For many young people, school is the only safe space.

  • Kathy Hoffman:

    Our students are speaking out about this issue, that they are devastated by the loss of peers and friends.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Superintendent Kathy Hoffman oversees Arizona's more than 2,000 public schools. Arizona's youth suicide rate has been consistently above the national average for years.

    Are you actually seeing data at this point to show whether the pandemic has increased the number of suicides in Arizona schools?

  • Kathy Hoffman:

    It does seem that there is a slight increase in the number of youth suicides.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As coronavirus cases have surged up and down, schools have bounced between opening and closing.

    Last week, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey ordered most schools to reopen to in person learning by March 15. But throughout the pandemic, Hoffman says she's been forced to thread a needle between containing COVID and addressing the needs of students that's been made even harder by policies that prioritize businesses over schools.

  • Kathy Hoffman:

    Experts have said that we should close bars and nightclubs before we closed schools. And that's not the decision that has been made here in Arizona.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Psychologist Lisa Horowitz says, regardless of when schools reopen, children and parents can learn how to help prevent suicide.

  • Lisa Horowitz:

    We teach them to read and to write and to do math and to do science. But when do we teach them what to do when you can't bear a disappointment or you feel so alone and isolated that you can't stand it anymore?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I think it's so taboo, and a lot of parents don't even want to say the word, because they don't want to even plant that in the mind of their young child.

  • Lisa Horowitz:

    I'm so glad you asked that, because that is the number one myth of suicide, is that talking to someone about suicide can put the idea in their head.

    The opposite is true. The best way to keep a teenager from killing themselves is to ask them directly, are you thinking of killing yourself? And then listen to the answer. And this part is really important. It's important to listen, because, sometimes, the answer is scary.

    And so you listen to what they say, and then you do your version of: We're going to get through this together. I'm going to get you help. I want you to be prepared.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Horowitz says to make sure kids know suicide is never an option, it's something even parents need to remind themselves of, as the pandemic drags on.

  • Lisa Horowitz:

    We have to pay very close attention to our kids now, whether or not they're in school or online, because they're struggling. And not only that, but their parents are struggling. And this might even be more important, because the mental health of parents really affects kids.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Back in Colorado, Heather Gard grieves.

  • Heather Gard:

    It's tough. Losing a child is the hardest thing that's ever going to happen to a person.

    I am here because my son took his own life in April.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    She is trying to turn pain into purpose.

  • Heather Gard:

    I'm here. You need to talk, I'm here.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Raising awareness about suicide and the collateral damage caused by a pandemic stretching into a second year.

  • Heather Gard:

    It makes me feel better knowing that it didn't mean nothing…

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Yes.

  • Heather Gard:

    … that he will touch others and his memory will live on.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Until pandemic restrictions on gatherings are over, a memorial service for Toby is on hold.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important to know that and to think about that.

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