“Prolonged social isolation is deadly; we have already lost one child to suicide in this county because of it. I am not willing to lose another, which is why I have made it my mission to advocate for our youth — especially those in already vulnerable situations.”
I wrote this in a desperate Facebook post on Jan. 21. Tragically, five days later, a three-sport athlete from Sheridan High School died in an apparent suicide.
Our kids are struggling. I refuse to be complacent about these circumstances. We must not overlook a heartbreaking and even fatal consequence from this pandemic: the emotional wellbeing of our children.
Rates of mental illness and suicides were steadily rising pre-pandemic and alarmingly, new evidence indicates that prolonged social isolation caused by school closures and suspension of activities, including sports, has exacerbated a childhood mental health catastrophe.
From escalating psychiatric dilemmas to concerns about growing incidences of abuse, neglect, drug overdoses, and child sexual exploitation — the pandemic is threatening our children’s legacies.
So, what is social isolation, and why should we be talking about it?
Put simply, social isolation is a lack of social connections. Human beings are social creatures, and being isolated can significantly impact health.
In Oregon, we are approaching one year since many kids have seen the inside of a classroom. Research has uncovered a disturbing trend — anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidality have risen to frightening levels, and teens appear to be suffering the most socially. They are lonely and bored. Interacting online is not the same as time spent with friends or family face-to-face.
Ironically, government policies intended to curtail the virus have led to unintended consequences that could endanger lives.
Research has established that adolescents, particularly younger kids, are less susceptible to infection and suffering acute symptoms and are less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID.
It is becoming evident that continuous isolation imposed on healthy kids may be misguided.
The CDC affirmed there is no justification for schools to remain closed, paralleling other studies worldwide that show minimal COVID-19 transmission in schools. In fact, it was found transmission rate is lower in schools than in surrounding communities.
The data reveals that schools can reopen safely with appropriate mitigation strategies (e.g., masking/physical distancing).
As a clinician, I do not take my advocacy role lightly. As a parent of two teenagers, this situation is personal. The mental health, social development and well-being of our youth cannot be understated. The data should guide our actions.
Recognizing that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, any heightened infection risk for educators and families should be evaluated against that.
I plead with the teachers’ unions to acknowledge the science and broader psychological and academic repercussions of their demands.
Let us be courageous. Let us be warriors for our students during this crisis by placing their needs ahead of our own and supporting decisions that facilitate a return to school.
Yamhill County resident Tracie McKinley-Luz is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice serving clients in Yamhill, Polk, and Marion counties.You may reach her at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Let’s talk about social isolation