(NewsNation) — A new analysis shows that children’s risk of suicide increases by as much as 43% during school months. Emergency room workers brace themselves for the “September wave,” when there’s a spike in children admitted for harming themselves.
“We kind of just have this casual acceptance that when the school year starts up again, our ER will be more busy for mental health cases,” said Dr. Tyler Black, an emergency pediatric psychiatrist at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada. “Everybody says it; nobody really considers what it means.”
Black said suicides for children aged 8 to 17 also occur more often on school days, based on two decades of data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s important to note only half of the children who die by suicide also had mental health issues. Oftentimes, suicide is an impulsive act. Yet depression, anxiety, bullying and stress can increase risk, and educators, therapists and doctors say children are facing a crisis that has been building for years.
Let kids take a mental health day
One in three parents say their child has shown signs of emotional distress at least once a week, according to a survey of 1,000 parents, and half identified school as a significant source of stress.
“Just the same way we would allow our child to take a day off from school if they have a cold, we should encourage them to take care of their emotional well-being if they’re struggling,” said Parents Editor in Chief Grace Bastidas on “Morning in America.”
“We know from our research that 86% of parents who’ve allowed their children to take that downtime say it makes a big difference,” she said.
These days off are best used when a kid needs time to recover from a big event — like an important test — the Child Mind Institute recommends. It shouldn’t be used to avoid a tough assignment or a conflict at school, because that can make kids angrier. If your kid asks for a day off, the institute recommends having a conversation about why.
Stigma over mental health issues can keep parents from admitting their kid needs a break, Bastidas said, and only 12 states allow mental health days as an excused absence. Also hindering its use: many parents can’t afford to take the time off work.
Dial back the pressure
Schools can put burdens on kids that we wouldn’t expect for working adults, Black said, like pressure for perfect attendance, hours of homework after a 7 to 8-hour school day peppered with short lunches and recess periods.
“My prescription for them is: take half days; let me talk to your school; let’s relieve your homework,” Black said of his ER patients.
The structure of school should fundamentally change, Black said. Among other areas, he said limiting homework is one place to start.
A 2015 study of middle schoolers found when students were assigned 90 to 100 minutes of daily homework, their math and science scores began to decline.
Short-term interventions can make a big difference too. Black has worked with teachers to offer his patients a break from grading while the student is in crisis. Schools can also offer an extra study period or more frequent breaks, he said.
“I encourage parents to really find out if they’re any people who can help them (with the school), whether it’s a doctor or a teacher or community organizer,” Black said. “Ultimately, you’ll have to be a squeaky wheel.”
Don’t just focus on punishing bullies
While it could be tempting to hope the bully gets his or her comeuppance, “if we care about bullying, we need to care about bullies,” Black said.
That’s because both bullies and those bullied are often on the two extremes of a spectrum. While bullies show their distress through aggression, victims are often targeted because they retreat within themselves.
Black said, “An elementary or middle school child raised in the chaotic environment of abuse is not an evil person.”
In fact, studies have found that interventions that work with bullies as well as victims are more effective, although results depend on a lot of factors not easily measured.
As kids experiment with their identity, it’s important that adults are respectful, especially for LGBTQ+ kids who are among the most likely to die by suicide at a young age.
Research also shows kids are more likely to be bullied in schools and classrooms where teachers are seen as intimidating and aggressive, Black said.
Ultimately, it’s important that parents are an open, non-judgmental space for kids to share with them, no matter what problem they’re facing.
“This really all starts by having these honest, open conversations with your child, and letting them know that all feelings are valid,” Bastidas said. “At least having these conversations is a really big step forward to helping your kid manage those tough emotions, those tough feelings.”
If you or someone you know needs help, resources or someone to talk to, you can find it at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or by calling 1-800-273-8255. People are available to talk to 24/7.