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Student Well-Being Opinion

What We Know About Suicide During the Pandemic (and What We Don’t)

Preventive services must be rooted in sound research
By Marisa E. Marraccini — March 31, 2021 4 min read
Student's on screen picture in contrast to real life isolation

We don’t yet understand the effects of remote learning on student mental health. As parents, educators, mental-health professionals, and researchers, we must distinguish among projections of risk (what we think might happen), current practice (what is actually happening), and our next steps (what we think should happen next). It is not a foregone conclusion that remote learning will have overall negative effects. This story is still being written.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of risks associated with suicide may be elevated—including social isolation, barriers to care, access to lethal means, and personal and economic loss. Over the past year, there have been numerous reports related to suicide risk, including some heartbreaking incidents of death. School communities must recognize warning signs for suicide, provide preventative services, and link kids to care.

These efforts must be rooted in what we know to be true about suicide. First and foremost, this means focusing on how suicide is preventable and how suicide-related thoughts and behaviors are treatable. This also means acknowledging the complexity of suicide, which relates to multiple factors (environmental, biological, and psychological risk) and cannot be attributed to any single factor.

A recent article published by the American Medical Association indicates that, while real-time data about suicide are not available in many regions, emerging data in several countries do not yet provide any evidence that overall deaths as a result of suicide have increased since COVID-19 first appeared. Estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from last summer do suggest an increase in suicidal ideation among young adults, signifying the potential for increased distress in this age group and underscoring the importance of connecting individuals to care. Suicidal ideation, however, is not a strong predictor of suicidal behavior or death due to suicide, and multiple evidence-based treatments are available for individuals with risk for suicide.

Although there are reports that suggest increased proportions of emergency-department visits for mental-health treatment or suicide-related behaviors in youth during the pandemic, this increase appears to be the result of a lower frequency of emergency-department visits overall. In fact, the actual numbers of visits for mental-health crises appear comparable to prior years. Until more data become available, it remains unclear if there have been changes in severity and intensity of mental-health crises. However, because seeking help is associated with suicide prevention, the rise in emergency-department visits could also reflect an ongoing commitment by caregivers toward treating serious mental-health concerns.
Schools play an important role in identifying risk for suicide, linking young people to care, providing comprehensive suicide-prevention programs, and facilitating social connections among youth. Schools also harbor known risk factors for suicide, including negative social interactions, bullying, and academic stressors. Thus, whether remote learning increases or decreases, suicide risk likely varies from child to child.

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Young adult holding up a lot of stress and pressure.
yokunen/iStock/Getty

Only 8% of students identified “interacting with teachers/school employees” as an activity that helped them maintain a positive state of mind in school during the pandemic.

As a school psychology researcher and professor, I study how schools can play a key role in suicide prevention. With the shift to remote learning, I have focused on understanding how schools can best continue to enhance suicide prevention in youth. I have also been closely following how the media has covered suicide prevention in the context of remote learning. Many reports convey messages that reflect negative outcomes as though they are final and unchangeable. Critically, there have been multiple, unfounded claims that rates of suicide are increasing or linked to remote learning. This is deeply concerning as it paints a false picture of a situation that remains uncertain.

Over the past few months, my colleagues and I have been surveying and speaking with school support professionals who are employing creative strategies to support suicide-prevention efforts and continue to connect with kids. I am hopeful about the potential for these remarkable professionals to have a positive effect on our youth. Some of these strategies, which are based on findings from my own research funded by several federal and private sponsors and other existing research, include:

  • Prioritizing connections with and between students. Allot nonacademic time for students, for example, asking students to answer fun discussion questions in smaller breakout rooms.
  • Integrating social and emotional learning into student and professional-development curricula.
  • Using multiple methods for reaching out to students. Consider emailing, calling, texting, video conferencing, and conducting home visits.
  • Offering counseling services, with a protocol for ensuring parents are available for sessions.
  • Providing information and resources to students and families, including suicide-prevention hotlines, crisis text lines, and community-based resources.
  • Learning about the warning signs and risk factors for suicide and how to connect students to care.
  • Establishing clear protocols for in-school and community-based referrals, virtual risk assessments, adapted safety planning, and emergency services such as mobile crisis.
  • Checking in with students, families, and colleagues regularly to identify ways to improve these approaches over time.
  • Practicing self-care and staying connected with your colleagues.

The shift to distance learning will have consequences, but we must continue to distinguish among reports of what can happen, what is happening, and what should happen. We need to tackle ongoing concerns of inequity and psychological distress, while being careful not to assume the worst. If we remain open to the possibility of multiple effects from remote learning, we won’t miss opportunities to reinforce and celebrate the successes of our children, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Warning Signs Associated With Suicide

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

Source: American Foundation of Suicide Prevention

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Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Story of Pandemic Learning and Suicide Is Still Being Written

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