Melinda Robbins was driving home with her family in late August when she learned a former student had killed himself.
“I cried all the way home,” the high school language arts teacher said. “His passing broke me.”
In spring, the boy left her class at Lee Pollard High School in the Corona-Norco Unified School District and shifted to home schooling.
“This is not the first student that I’ve lost in my career, and I hope and pray it will be the last,” Robbins said.
More Southern California children and teens killed themselves in the first eight months of the coronavirus pandemic than in the same period last year, a Southern California News Group analysis shows.
In three out of four Los Angeles-area counties, more young people took their lives between March, when the pandemic swept Southern California, and October, the latest month for which all four coroner’s offices had data, than in the same eight months last year. Those numbers, from the Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties’ coroner’s, rose even as the number of adults killing themselves dropped in the same period.
Experts worry that social isolation and other stresses connected to the pandemic are hitting young people hard, especially the most vulnerable among them. And they warn that worse may be coming.
Corona-Norco schools report five deaths in eight months
Corona-Norco Superintendent Sam Buenrostro said at the Nov. 10 school board meeting that five district high school students had killed themselves since the pandemic struck and students began taking classes online. They all lived in Corona, Norco or Eastvale and the most recent death occurred in October, he said.
“Our district, staff and students are not an exception to this national crisis,” Buenrostro said.
According to district spokeswoman Brittany Ritzi Foust, his comments were based on information from Steve Ellis, the district’s safety coordinator, who compiles the data from various sources.
Data from the Coroner’s Bureau of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office, obtained through California Public Records Act requests, shows that, between March 1 and Oct. 31, six people under the age of 18 killed themselves in Riverside County. Five did so during the same period in 2019. None of the minors who killed themselves in 2020 lived in Corona, Norco or Eastvale, according to coroner’s data.
The district does not vet the information from “trusted law enforcement” officials, according to district spokeswoman Evita Tapia. Its focus — and the purpose of the courtesy calls from police about student deaths — is to make counseling available at schools where a student has died.
On Nov. 10, the school board voted 3-2 to allow elementary schools to reopen in phases beginning in January, citing the five suicides about which the district had been told, along with other safety and mental health concerns.
That wasn’t fast enough for board member Elizabeth Marroquin. The former teacher wanted schools reopened in mid-November, saying students needed immediate interaction with their peers, especially if they come from difficult home situations.
“They just need to talk to somebody,” she said at the meeting. “They need to come back where they feel safe. We can do that by bringing everyone back to school and getting them the education they need.”
Corona-Norco parents took to social media to say the social and emotional toll on their children is real. In one Facebook group, Transparent CNUSD, many expressed concerns that their kids are depressed, isolated and overloaded with work. Some parents said they are considering moving their children to private schools, many of which have reopened on waivers.
Corona-Norco Unified trains teachers and staff to evaluate students’ mental health, according to Anita Shirley, the district’s coordinator of school counseling services. It also offers online tools for families to connect with mental health services 24 hours a day, she said.
More young people are killing themselves
Between March 1 and Oct. 31 of this year, 15 Los Angeles County minors killed themselves, according to the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office. The number is unchanged from the same period in 2019. During this time, the number of L.A. County adults who killed themselves dropped, from 579 in 2019 to 549 this year.
In Orange County, nine minors and 161 adults killed themselves during the pandemic’s first eight months, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. That’s triple the number of minors from the same period last year, but 64 fewer adults.
In Riverside County, the number rose from five to six minors this year, as the number of adults who killed themselves fell from 204 to 126 between March and the end of October, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
Suicides among minors doubled in San Bernardino County during distance learning, climbing from four between March 1 and Oct. 31, 2019, to eight in that period this year. The number of adults who killed themselves dropped from 164 to 147 in that time.
From 2007 to 2017, suicides by minors grew by 56%, according to Tory Cox, an associate professor of social work at USC. But that’s “nothing like” a one-year 40% increase the Southern California News Group analysis shows for this year so far, he wrote in email.
Experts call trend ’cause for alarm’
Calls to crisis health lines are up during the pandemic, according to Jonathan Goldfinger, the CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, which runs many of the nation’s crisis lines and most in Southern California.
“They’re facing adversity like they’ve never faced in their lives,” he said. “They’re most likely going to attempt to take their lives in greater numbers than ever before. And I’d say that’s cause for alarm.”
It’s standard practice to ask callers if they’ve had thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Those numbers are up slightly, Goldfinger said, from 44% in 2019 to about 46% so far this year.
Young people who were already more likely to consider killing themselves — those who are LGBT, mistreated, homeless, have substance abuse problems, foster kids, those in negative family environments, or who live in poverty — are more vulnerable now, according to Mark Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at UCLA.
“There’s a physical isolation that’s taking its toll,” said Kaplan, who’s been studying suicide for decades. “It’s leading to despair.”
Cox says parents should recognize that “these are times when their children need more engagement, not less, more outreach, not less.”
He encourages parents to spend time with their kids and to help them connect to other children however they can, such as through the videoconferencing software Zoom.
Schools look after students’ mental health
School districts can play a role in students’ mental health.
A 2019 Southern California News Group analysis showed an average of 20% of middle school and high school students in California public school districts said they had thought about killing themselves. In the analysis, Corona-Norco students were 1% above that average rate.
But many districts had lower rates reported by students in the anonymous California School Climate, Health, and Learning Surveys used in the analysis. That’s likely thanks, in part, to how those districts have worked to improve students’ mental and emotional health.
“Families and caregivers understand their children a lot more, but it’s also really important to connect with school personnel to make sure they get the support necessary,” said Joel Cisneros, school mental health director for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Its students were 6% less likely to think of killing themselves, according to the analysis.
In April, the district launched a mental health hotline. As of mid-November, it had fielded “close to 8,000 calls,” and connected those who needed help to mental health services, according to Cisneros.
Since the pandemic began, the Santa Ana Unified School District’s mental health team has seen a “dramatic” increase in students identified as being at risk of killing themselves, along with other mental and emotional health crises, according to Sonia Rodarte Llamas, assistant superintendent of school performance and culture.
According to the 2019 analysis, district students were 5% less likely to think of killing themselves. The district’s mental health team is identifying one to two students a day who need to be connected to suicide mental health experts, Llamas said.
“Isolation and lack of connectedness have exacerbated social emotional struggles in our students,” Llamas wrote in an email.
In the San Jacinto Unified School District — where students were 3% less likely to think of killing themselves according to the 2019 analysis — every employee is trained to spot suicide warning signs and students from kindergarten through eighth grade receive regular lessons to improve mental health and emotional coping skills.
But online education has made keeping an eye on students more challenging, according to Vanessa Gomez, coordinator of student support for the Riverside County district.
“Being in distance learning is definitely a barrier to kids feeling connected and, thank God, knock on wood, we haven’t seen a spike in suicides,” she said.
In the Rialto Unified School District, where students were 3% less likely to think of killing themselves, according to the 2019 analysis, the district began adjusting its emotional and mental health practices for distance learning in March. Among those changes, according to district spokeswoman Syeda Jafri, are “virtual wellness centers” for middle schools and online counseling services for high school students.
Olivia Chimiel, 17, who runs her school’s mental health club at Great Oak High School in the Temecula Valley Unified School District, said more awareness is needed.
“It isn’t just, ‘I’m so depressed today.’ It’s a real thing a lot of us students are going through,” she said. “I think the main thing is being open to having that conversation. That’s where most change starts, with talking.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, mental health resources, including free and low-cost services, are available. They include: