‘Something has to happen’: Students’ mental health suffers amid distance learning

Special Reports

Kids are experiencing more anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts during the pandemic, but experts say there are ways to protect their mental health

Ted Robbins holds a sign for his son Christian, who died by suicide, at an Open Schools USA rally in January 2021. Photo courtesy Melanie Gabriel

Editor’s note: If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On a sunny day in January, 13-year-old Melanie Gabriel played on the monkey bars with her younger brother while recording a TikTok video. She was laughing and smiling and wearing intricately-done makeup. She looked genuinely happy. 

“A lot of people when they meet me wouldn’t just guess oh, she has depression, but I do,” Gabriel said. 

Melanie Gabriel stands in Grant Park in Portland, Ore. on Jan. 19, 2021. KOIN photo

When Gabriel’s school, Lake Oswego Middle School, closed and distance learning began in March 2020, her mental health took a dive. She said mixing her school environment with her home environment was confusing and stressful. She felt overwhelmed with the number of assignments she was expected to complete at home and felt like she didn’t have an escape from her school work. 

Gabriel isn’t alone. She claims in the last year, she’s lost friends to suicide and has others who are considering suicide.

“I’m fed up with the fact that that is happening because of e-learning and because of the social isolation and something has to happen before I don’t have any friends anymore,” Gabriel said. 

Her frustration has driven her to action. Gabriel has teamed up with Michelle Walker to create an organization called Open Schools USA. The group started as a local movement in the Portland and Vancouver metro areas, but is now expanding to include families from other states who are demanding lawmakers reopen schools. 

Open Schools USA brought Gabriel and Walker together with Ted Robbins, from Richland, Wash., who lost his son Christian to suicide in April 2020 and John Bruns and Heather Wendling, from Ridgefield, Wash., whose daughter London died by suicide in September 2020. 

Ted Robbins holds a sign for his son Christian, who died by suicide, at an Open Schools USA rally in January 2021. Photo courtesy Melanie Gabriel

Wendling, Robbins and Bruns all believe their children would still be alive if schools were open. 

Robbins said he underestimated how much his son needed the peer-to-peer connection and the ability to confide in his friends. Christian’s friends usually visited the Robbins’ home every weekend, but several of them are immunocompromised. When the pandemic began, they stopped coming over, leaving Christian feeling alone. 

Bruns and Wendling also think London missed her friends a lot. Wendling admitted she was afraid of the possibility of sending her daughter back to school. She didn’t want to put her at risk of contracting COVID-19. 

“I was like, ‘I’m not sending my kid back to die,’ but I kept her home and she died,” Wendling said. “Now, I just, I think we need to listen to the kids and do what the kids say they need. We need to make them a priority.”  

Anxiety is up, but suicides are down 

Despite the heartbreaking stories of Christian Robbins’ and London Bruns’ deaths, the most recent data from Washington State Department of Health and Oregon Health Authority show that suicides in both states were down in 2020 compared to 2019. 

The preliminary data from WSDOH show there were 1,116 reported suicide deaths in 2020 compared to 1,263 in 2019. WSDOH says the 2020 numbers are not finalized and could change in the coming months.

Washington suicide deaths 2020 compared to 2019 and 2018 – courtesy WSDOH

In Oregon Health Authority’s Suicide-related Public Health Surveillance Update that was released Jan. 15, 2021, Oregon Health Authority said it’s still processing mortality data and the numbers for December 2020. However, according to the information it has available, from January – November, there were 742 suicide deaths in the state in 2020 compared to 852 during the same period in 2019, a 13% decrease. 

Oregon suicide deaths 2020 compared to 2019 – courtesy OHA

Similarly, suicide-related visits to emergency departments and urgent care clinics in Oregon were also down: 25,398 visits in 2020 compared to 28,510 in 2019. There was also a decrease in suicide related visits to emergency departments and urgent care clinics for patients ages 18 and under, 4,850 in 2020 compared to 5,531 in 2019. 

What increased in Oregon in 2020 was the number of calls to Lines for Life: 32,395 in 2020 compared to 28,544 in 2019. 

“That actually doesn’t surprise me,” Amy Baker, a social worker in the Beaverton School District said when she heard about the increase in calls to Lines for Life. “One of the things that we know about suicide is that way more people think about suicide and experience stress and anxiety than people who have suicidal behavior.” 

She said this is good news because it gives people more time to intervene. 

Amy Baker works with 52 Behavioral Health and Wellness teams at schools across the district. From what these teams have told her, she believes anxiety, stress, and the demand for mental health resources have all increased for students during the pandemic. 

A CDC survey conducted among adults also showed that symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020.

“Stress and anxiety do not have to equate to suicide,” explained Jill Baker, youth suicide and prevention coordinator for Oregon Health Authority. “In fact, humans can endure quite a lot of stress if they’re given the right protective factors and the right amount of risk factors are mitigated.” 

Jill Baker, no relation to Amy Baker, said youth suicide deaths were also down in 2020 compared to 2019 and 2018. She said things like improved sleep schedules, more time with family, and less time around school bullies are all some of the “protective factors” that might be protecting teens.  

Often times, suicide is preventable 

After losing their children, Ted Robbins and John Bruns and Heather Wendling are now on missions to save others. 

“I can’t bring Christian back no matter what I do,” Robbins said, “but our goal as a family was to… try to save one other family from going through the same thing we went through.” 

Christian Robbins – photo courtesy Ted Robbins

Ted Robbins said his 16-year-old son didn’t come across as someone who suffered from depression. He was a straight-A student, an athlete; he was outgoing and had great friends at his school. 

But Ted and his wife Sarah knew their son suffered from bipolar disorder. In September 2019, Christian told his friends he was having suicidal thoughts. His friends encouraged him to tell his father and Ted and Sarah took him immediately to a hospital for treatment. 

When the pandemic hit and schools closed, Ted Robbins said he thought Christian was getting better. Doctors were still trying to figure out the best medicine to treat Christian, but Ted thought all the time he was spending with his family was benefitting him. Ted remembers Christian telling his grandma how excited he was for family pizza night on Friday. Two days after that pizza night, Christian killed himself. 

John Bruns and Heather Wendling were also blindsided by their daughter’s death. 

“From day one she was a happy kid. There were no signs of depression, anxiety, sadness throughout her entire life,” John said. 

London Bruns hugs a dog – photo courtesy Heather Wendling

London’s parents said they’ll always ask themselves what they could have done differently and now they’re encouraging parents to directly ask their kids: Have you thought about killing yourself? 

“If you don’t know how to start the conversation, use London’s story as an example because she was the girl that had it all and she had so many friends and family that loved her unconditionally and if it could happen to her, it could happen to your kid,” Wendling said. 

Jill Baker, the youth suicide prevention coordinator for OHA, said asking a child about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. She said it does the opposite. She said suicide thrives in secrecy and that drawing it out, especially for youth, can help protect them. 

“I think one of the things this pandemic has done for us is elevating the ability to talk about mental health and the ability to say, ‘This is hard. I’m struggling,’ and making that kind of more normalized,” Jill Baker said. 

Amy Baker, the social worker from Beaverton School District, also said knowing how to recognize the signs a child is having suicidal thoughts, such as drastic changes in behavior, giving their belongings away, and using terminal statements like “I don’t want to be here anymore” and “what’s the point?” can help protect children. She said there is training available online at GetTrainedToHelp.com

Amy Baker said adults should be aware of suicide contagion, where one person’s suicide can influence other people within a community to also consider killing themselves. Usually, people who are already at risk are more susceptible to this. Amy Baker said to pay close attention to friends of someone who died by suicide. 

Jill Baker said if teenagers have two trusted adults they can turn to, it virtually eliminates their risk of suicide. 

After losing her own daughter, Heather Wendling said she’s open to being that trusted adult for other kids. 

“Whenever I find that there’s a child who’s struggling or reaches out to me because they’re suicidal… I try to like be there for them. ‘What can I do to help you?’” she said. 

London Bruns – photo courtesy Heather Wendling

However, with students isolated to their own homes during distance learning, their interactions with adults outside of their immediate family are limited. 

Amy Baker said the Beaverton School District has offered multiple trainings for teachers on how to pick up on signs their students are struggling when they don’t see them face-to-face every day. She said teachers need to really pay close attention to any subtle changes in behavior they can pick up on during their Zoom classes. 

This is something Charles Sanderson, a high school language arts teacher in the Woodburn School District, said he’s been watching out for. 

“I had a kid the other day who normally – her camera’s on, super interactive in the chat. She’s crickets. OK, so I’m going to follow up. I’m going to pop her a chat, send her an email, check in,” Sanderson said. 

He said he’ll also follow up if a student isn’t in class. 

When it comes to his students’ mental health, Sanderson said he’s trying to give them a lot of grace and as a result, he’s noticed his students giving each other a lot of grace as well. He’s also focusing on acknowledgement and affirmation and celebrating achievements, no matter how small they are. 

Will reopening schools help students’ mental health? 

Distance learning certainly isn’t working for some students, but it is working better for others. 

Sanderson said taking away in-person social anxieties has allowed some of his students to thrive academically. He also proudly said that the other day, one of his students came out to their classmates over Zoom. 

He said when they do go back to in-person classes, it’s going to be important for teachers to take the skills they’ve learned during distance learning with them.

“My kids are learning. I’ve got better academic outcomes right now. I’ve got better attendance. My kids aren’t late to class. I’m getting vastly better outcomes right now than in a traditional year,” Sanderson said. 

While some schools in Oregon and Washington are pushing to open as soon as possible, the Woodburn Education Association, the district’s teachers’ union, said on Jan. 18, 2021 that their educators are “justifiably concerned” about resuming in-person classes while the city’s COVID-19 infection rate was so high. The COVID-19 two-week case counts from Jan. 9 showed the infection rate for Woodburn was 899.5 per 100,000. 

Sanderson said he doesn’t know when he’ll feel comfortable returning to the classroom. What he does know is how horrible he would feel if he was responsible for spreading the virus. 

“I can’t even fathom passing that to a student who takes it home to their multigenerational family and god forbid a grandfather or an uncle or an aunt passes away. I don’t know how I would live with that,” he said. 

Michelle Walker, co-founder of Open Schools USA, believes the damage being done to kids’ mental health while schools are closed is a greater risk than the chance of transmitting the virus when there are proper COVID-19 precautions in place. 

“With COVID-19, there are ways to mitigate and ways to treat it,” Walker said. “[Kids’ mental health risks and COVID-19] are both awful. They’re both tragic, but I do feel that their mental health is in more jeopardy.” 

The other co-founder of Open Schools USA, 13-year-old Melanie Gabriel, transferred to Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Vancouver for the 2020-2021 school year and said she’s now having a better experience with distance learning. She said like she has more time to work on her assignments in class, but is still looking forward to going back to the classroom and making new friends.

Eventually, schools will open. When they do, Jill Baker said she and educators in Oregon and Washington will be on high alert again for suicidal behavior 

“Any time there’s a transition for children and families, even if it’s a good transition, it increases stress,” she said. “We have to know that it’s the next step in this behavioral mental health challenge that we’re going through.” 

Whether it’s supporting kids inside or outside the classroom, Jill Baker said the thing to do is to make them more resilient, to focus on the things that give them strength, to tell them this is hard, but there’s a way to get through it. 

“They need to hear that this can be OK at some point. And so, that’s what I’m hopeful for,” she said. 

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources. If you live in Oregon, you can find crisis lines for your county at this website. If you live in Washington, suicide prevention resources are available on the Department of Health website. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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