Even in normal times, the holiday season can be a mental health challenge marked by high levels of depression due to loneliness, the loss of loved ones, or financial distress. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, those stressors are more extensive and more complicated for students, families, and school staff. Issues related to the continued isolation from family and friends, illness and death, and other hardships increase the risks for depression. Depression is strongly associated with suicide, which increased by 50 percent in less than two decades among youth ages 10 to 24, says Scott Poland, a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a youth suicide prevention expert.
Poland tells ASBJ’s Michelle Healy why “we have to be concerned about all of the isolation that everybody has experienced.” (This interview was edited for clarity and length.)
What did we learn during the school closures in the spring that we should continue to think about this fall?
That not every quarantine went well for every kid. Domestic violence went up. Child abuse went up, even though it wasn’t well reported because most child abuse is detected by school personnel. I’m sure alcohol consumption went up. I’d like to think that families increased empathetic bonds and new traditions, but I’d be naive to think that happened everywhere.
Traditions like large family get-togethers may not happen this fall and winter. Can that add to feelings of loneliness and depression?
There’s still this kind of idealistic view of what family and the holidays should be like, but with the pandemic, many of us won’t be able to experience that. My wife and I have nine grandchildren that we haven’t seen since last Christmas. From the kids’ perspective, they often aren’t seeing the elderly relatives they care about or gathering as much as they would like with friends. There’s this long pattern of isolation.
How are depression and risk of suicide linked?
Those with pre-existing conditions, such as depression or other untreated or undertreated mental illnesses, are at an increased risk for suicide. Add to that the loss of a loved one or severe financial hardship, and it can change a person’s perspective on life. When I speak to school administrators, I stress the importance of finding out if a kid in your school has lost a loved one to COVID-19 and making sure they are getting support and are connected to counseling.
The same attention needs to be paid to school staff?
Administrators have to know their staff, reach out, talk to them. Hopefully, you had a conversation with those who decided not to come back at the beginning of the year or who are resigning midyear, about why, about their concerns and fears, about how you can help them stay safe.