The coronavirus has not only put Americans’ physical health at risk. For many, the abrupt and sweeping upheaval in daily life has brought tremendous emotional stress. In some cases, the pressure triggers a mental health crisis that’s especially severe.
Recent figures from Douglas and Sarpy Counties point to a particular concern during the COVID-19 emergency: The number of suicides so far this year for local youths 19 and younger is double that from a year ago.
Five youths in Douglas and Sarpy Counties took their lives through this time in 2019. For the same period this year, the number is 10.
This stands out both because of that sharp increase and also because it contrasts with a decline in suicide numbers for adults 20 and older in Douglas and Sarpy Counties: 73 suicides in that age category for this period last year, compared with 57 so far this year.
COVID-19 clearly has brought great distress to a significant number of local youths, and it’s crucial for our area to provide the support these vulnerable children and teens need.
The executive directors of two nonprofits — Julia Hebenstreit, with the Kim Foundation, and Gene Klein, with Project Harmony — underscored that point in a Midlands Voices essay: “We must all reach out to the youth of our community with positive, helpful messaging, along with the services and connections they desperately need right now.” The Kim Foundation compiled the suicide data from the Omaha Police Department and the Douglas and Sarpy County Sheriff’s Offices.
School systems play a key role in this effort, of course. Indeed, school officials and mental health professionals expressed concern last spring that the suspension of in-class instruction because of COVID-19 would mean school personnel would have reduced opportunity to detect signs that students were experiencing depression or other emotional challenges.
In that regard, the resumption of in-class instruction in local districts has provided an added benefit.
It was already known that suicide is the second-leading cause of deaths for youths ages 15-19 in Nebraska and Iowa. National figures are similar, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors screen all youths ages 12 and up for depression annually.
Nebraska has worked to be proactive on this issue. The Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition is the central coordinator bringing together a range of agencies and institutions for youth outreach. Nebraska has used evidence-based, online software to train thousands of school staff members and administrators to understand warning signs and appropriate responses.