Ray Carter | December 3, 2021

Child harm from COVID shutdowns evident in suicide data

Ray Carter

COVID and associated shutdowns have fueled a dramatic increase in suicidal thoughts and attempts among Oklahoma children, officials told lawmakers, and the repercussions are now leading to multi-million-dollar requests for new spending on treatment services.

“In our hospital, we see suicidal teens every shift that we work,” said Robyn Cowperthwaite, chief of Child and Adolescent Mental Health at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. “Now the pandemic has increased this problem pretty significantly. We saw by October of 2020—so, earlier in the pandemic—children presenting for emergency services in our emergency room had increased by 31 percent, those with mental-health crises. By May of 2021, those rates had doubled from pre-pandemic rates.”

She noted research indicates rates of depression and anxiety have doubled among children since the COVID pandemic began, leaving 25 percent of children suffering from depression and 20 percent suffering from anxiety disorders.

Those comments were made during a meeting of the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding–Health and Human Services Working Group.

During the meeting, officials representing the University Hospitals Authority asked state lawmakers to approve funding for an expansion of their facilities, in part to address the growing influx of children who’ve attempted suicide or are otherwise having severe mental-health challenges.

Officials asked lawmakers to spend nearly $10 million in state appropriations and $37 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds on the expansion. (ARPA was a federal COVID-bailout measure.)

Health officials’ comments during the legislative hearing were just the latest evidence of how COVID shutdowns harmed Oklahoma children, even as debate continues over whether Oklahoma should embrace more restrictive measures to reduce COVID spread.

Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Kevin Stitt has generally argued that Oklahoma citizens should have personal discretion in how they deal with the pandemic based on individual circumstances. The debate has been especially vocal regarding K-12 education, where Stitt argued for full reopening of schools and aggressively urged districts that maintained longstanding lockdowns to reopen, such as the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts, which were closed throughout most of the 2020-2021 school year.

In response to Stitt’s advocacy, Tulsa School Superintendent Deborah Gist tweeted that Stitt was “a bully” who had “targeted our district & our decisions.”

However, COVID closure of schools is generally linked to increased depression and thoughts of suicide among at-risk students like those discussed by officials at the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding meeting.

An April 14, 2020 article in The Lancet warned, “School routines are important coping mechanisms for young people with mental health issues. When schools are closed, they lose an anchor in life and their symptoms could relapse.”

Even so, Stitt’s focus on school reopening and reducing schools’ COVID disruptions has often pitted him against some school leaders, most notably State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

In January, when Stitt endorsed easing quarantine policies in Oklahoma schools so that only students who test positive for COVID would be required to quarantine, Hofmeister immediately announced her opposition. At the time, many school leaders had complained that quarantining healthy students who were only exposed to someone who had the virus led to massive and unnecessary disruption in student learning.

At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, Hofmeister crafted a plan that would have required school districts to close when COVID rates topped 25 cases per 100,000 population, a threshold so low that a literal handful of cases would have forced schools in some rural counties to close. That plan also “strongly recommended” that schools “transition to alternative schedules (A/B weeks, rotations, hybrid model, etc.) or distance learning” when rates reached 14.39 cases per 100,000 population but were still below 25 cases per 100,000 population.

Stitt’s appointees to the State Board of Education chose to adopt Hofmeister’s plan only as guidance, rather than as a state mandate.

Data maintained by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) showed that Hofmeister’s plan, if implemented, would have forced nearly all Oklahoma schools to close for a substantial part of the 2020-2021 school year.

For every week between Oct. 1, 2020, and Feb. 11, 2021, all schools in a majority of Oklahoma counties would have been required to close under Hofmeister’s plan, based on the 25-cases-per-100,000-population threshold. At any given time from Nov. 5, 2020, to Feb. 11, 2021, no more than nine counties out of 77 statewide would have been allowed to hold in-person instruction in local schools under Hofmeister’s plan, while all schools in the remainder would have been required to close and shift to distance learning.

Had schools abided by Hofmeister’s recommendation to transition to distance learning whenever COVID cases exceeded 14.39 cases per 100,000 population in a county, school closures would have been even more severe. OSSBA data showed that schools in a majority of counties would have been closed under that standard every single week from Aug. 27, 2020, to March 4, 2021.

Instead, because of Stitt's appointees on the State Board of Education, districts were free to choose whether to close. Most districts outside of Oklahoma’s urban centers opted to remain open for in-person learning throughout most of the 2020-2021 school year with no notable negative COVID impact on student health reported.

On Oct. 7, 2021, Hofmeister announced she was switching parties and would seek the Democratic nomination for governor to oppose Stitt’s reelection. Hofmeister has made criticism of Stitt’s COVID response part of her focus in that race.

During the legislative joint meeting on pandemic funding, health officials told lawmakers that suicide trendlines among Oklahoma youth were not favorable prior to COVID shutdowns but accelerated in the wrong direction during the pandemic.

“Where 15 to 20 years ago we might see one to two suicidal ideations a month, the problem is growing exponentially and we now are seeing three to five patients per day that are in mental-health crisis,” said Jon Hayes, chief executive officer of Oklahoma Children’s Hospital. “Our emergency department rooms are not set up or equipped for the unique challenges and needs of these children. They are designed and equipped for children with acute medical conditions.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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