Education, health officials concerned about mental health of students as death by suicide increases

Updated: Nov. 9, 2020 at 11:54 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Arizona schools are on high alert, as health officials say the state has seen a “significant increase [in COVID-19 cases] within the past week”.

Several districts are returning to virtual learning, while others haven’t had the chance to open for in-person classes at all.

Monday afternoon, education leaders and health experts met to discuss the current situation.

“The more we ignore this virus, the less stability we provide our students and families,” said Kathy Hoffman, the Superintendent of Public Instruction for Arizona.

“Last week, the percent positivity increased to 9%,” said Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona’s Health Director.

The troubling trend is reflected in schools, too.

“In just the last two weeks, two high school coaches lost their lives to COVID-19,” Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, it seems mitigation efforts may also be taking a toll on students.

“Tragically, this year we have already surpassed last year with the number of suicides in our children,” Christ said.

According to AZDHS, 38 children under the age of 17 died by suicide in 2019. This year, 43 have taken their own lives.

“We have experienced the tragedy of death by suicide of two of our students this year,” said John Carruth, the Superintendent of Vail Unified School District (VUSD).

Teen Lifeline is also getting more calls and texts.

“The real issue is the fact that COVID is creating a situation where [students] can’t do what they would normally do with those feelings,” said Nikki Kontz, the Clinical Director of Teen Lifeline. “Say they play a sport; they can’t necessarily play it - that’s what else we found out today.”

With the recent rise in cases, the goal of returning to in-person learning five days a week seems further away.

“Most of the state currently is in a ‘moderate’ benchmark, but we are discussing mitigation strategies for when counties do move back into ‘substantial’,” Christ said.

If a county enters ‘red’ in all three categories, AZDHS recommends a full return to online learning. However, districts still make the final call.

Since controlling cases is key, school and health officials are asking families to avoid sleepovers and club sports. They’re also encouraging everyone to keep wearing masks and to report businesses that are not complying with the COVID-19 regulations.

“Expect efforts to protect our schools to come with continued sacrifice,” Hoffman said.

If you are a student (or a parent of a student) who is struggling, please call the Teen Lifeline at 1-800-248-TEEN. You can also text the crisis line at 602-248-TEEN. It’s free, statewide and confidential.

You can also reach someone 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

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