Teen Loses Life to Suicide because of the Pandemic

Posted on February 24, 2021 by

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“Check on them every morning, every night, no matter how old they are, if they’re at home,” Jay Smith said. “Always give them a hug and tell them how proud you are of them. I remember always telling Spencer that. I think I should have told him more.”

Spencer Smith was an outgoing, sixteen-year-old high school sophomore. He loved teasing his sisters, spending time with friends, and, most of all, playing football. If he wasn’t playing football, he was watching the New England Patriots with his dad.

“Every time football season ended, he was on a high, win or lose,” Spencer’s father Jay Smith said. 

Spencer was frustrated with schools being closed amid the coronavirus pandemic last spring. To get through it, he immersed himself in football, expecting to be a lineman for his high school team in Brunswick, Maine.

 ¨He focused on building his muscles,¨ Jay Smith said.

 His son went on a special diet and bought all the equipment he could while riding his bike and jogging.

 ¨He got an old tire…tied a rope around it and cut up a backpack. All the neighbors would see him out there dragging it around the lawn. He raked the lawn almost all summer long with that tire. It was full of grass,” Jay Smith said.

As the pandemic dragged on and the school announced a scaled-back football season with a switch to flag football, Spencer started to worry. He was a tackler, not a runner. 

He eventually left the team. He stopped working as hard and working out and focused on napping more. He was an honor roll student but started struggling with remote learning. His dad said that he began noticing signs of how much he was missing the teammates, the barbeques, and the Thursday night spaghetti suppers. Jay Smith received a text from his wife saying Spencer must have overslept again, as he had missed homeroom. He went to his son’s bedroom. He was dead by suicide.

 ¨I just asked Spencer, ‘Spencer, why?’¨ his father said. 

A growing number are like the Smiths–losing a child to suicide during a pandemic that has upended so much of what Americans have long considered normal.

¨Youth suicides had generally been rising before the pandemic, and it is too early to link an increase in deaths directly to school closures,¨ Rufino, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston, said.

Rufino co-authored a study that found there had been a significant increase in the number of ER visits to a children’s hospital related to mental health since coronavirus hit the US.

The youngest child to die was nine.

“It’s heartbreaking as a superintendent when you lose a child. It’s heartbreaking as a leader,” Jesus Jara said.

Some kids are struggling with not enough to eat, while others have parents who lost their jobs, and kids have to take on new responsibilities with school closed.

Signs of trouble began in early fall when a warning system on school-issued laptops and tablets, programmed to detect mental and emotional struggles, showed a case in alarming searches.

¨Kids are searching ´How to suicide.’ You get the alerts–you get four or five a day,” Jara said.

 In person schools can help to stop more students feeling overwhelmed after the loss of a classmate; this is sometimes called ¨postvention”

¨In a youth suicide, you really need to worry about things like suicide contagion or suicide clusters, because they are rather common in youth,” Rufino said. ¨When a youth suicide takes place, a school is going to rapidly implement a ´postvention´ plan. It provides students and teachers with much needed support. They can deal with tragic loss together… However, if schools aren’t on school campuses, it’s going to be really difficult to implement a postvention plan. It’s possible that it is going to leave parents floundering, unsure of how to talk to their kids¨ 

Spencer Smith’s parents believe that, if schools and youth programs had been open with proper social distancing, allowing children to be together safely, their son might not have died. They urge other families not to take face-to-face interaction for granted.