Brunswick and Topsham-area school districts are hosting forums this week in response to the death by suicide of a Brunswick High School sophomore.

Spencer Smith, 16, who died Dec. 4, struggled from the isolation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, his family said.

The forums will feature Greg Marley, the director of suicide prevention and clinical director of Maine’s National Alliance on Mental Illness. Marley told School Administrative District 75 board members last week that the pandemic has been difficult for students’ mental health — particularly as students are isolated in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We’re seeing maybe a doubling in significant depressive symptoms, a significant rise in anxiety and anxiety disorders,” Marley said. “It’s a reflection, think about it, of the stresses in our society.

“I am seeing an increase in desperation, and it scares the hell out of me,” Marley added.

There isn’t yet suicide data for Maine during the pandemic, Marley said.

However, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide has been the second leading cause of death among Mainers ages 10-24. From 2014-16, the suicide rate for Maine youth ages 10-24 was 12.6 suicides per 100,000 compared to the national rate of 9.1 suicides per 100,000.

Dr. Marc Kaplan is a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist is the medical director at Sweetser, a mental health care provider serving Maine. He said Monday that teen suicide has been escalating for a decade.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the suicide rate among persons aged 10–24 was stable from 2000 to 2007, and then increased 56% between 2007 and 2017.

“The train was headed in the wrong direction. … You take that and add a national crisis on top of it, something unprecedented that our country hasn’t faced since almost 100 years ago,” Kaplan said. “It’s adding kerosene to a fire that is already blazing,”

MSAD75 Superintendent Shawn Chabot said that Smith’s death has made people take stock of what can be done to support youths while trying to get them back to school and some sense of normalcy, Chabot said.

“That tragedy in Brunswick last weekend hit our community as well,” Chabot said Friday. “Understandably so for so many students who knew him or the family or just can relate with some of his struggles. I think lots of people are struggling in different ways.”

The concern about the pandemic’s impact on students’ mental health has been raised at every MSAD 75 school board meeting this school year. Since September, students in Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell and Topsham have been in school two days a week and learning remotely from home the rest of the week.

Students in Kindergarten and first grade started four-day weeks of in-person instruction last week. Second and third grades are slated to start four-day weeks on Jan. 19, with other grades to follow in phases. That is as long as the Maine Department of Education considers the risk of COVID-19 transmission to be low in Sagadahoc and Cumberland counties.

MSAD 75 School Board member Alison Hawkes argued the school district has to fast-track plans for getting kids back in school full-time. She said Thursday she feels the school district hasn’t talked enough about how to serve the students who are struggling, not only academically but also emotionally.

“We have kids to educate and we have kids to protect, and we cannot protect our student population the way we are educating them,” she said. “We as a board, we can do better and we have to get together as a board … and do our work. Help our kids.”

Andrew Wallace also raised concerns about the impact of remote learning on students. He has a child with an individual education plan (IEP) who is home two days a week while his parents work.

“He’s not disciplined enough as an IEP student to go it alone on his two remote days,” Wallace said. “He has to have a structure, otherwise he is completely missing out on this school year. We have to get back to school.”

Wallace also worried about the school’s ability to assess mental health.

“There’s no way that there can by any kind of close monitoring and consistency with the mental health of our kids,” on a two-day a week basis, Wallace said.

Contributing to the uncertainty and stress for students, Marley said, is that the nation has been divided in its response to the pandemic. During World War II, U.S. suicide rates fell “because we were altogether against and with something larger than ourselves. So how do we join together rather than fight, because that’s what’s reflected in our children.”

Marley advised parents to pay attention and stay close to their children, and know when to reach out to school counselors, pastors and coaches.

“Don’t feel like you have to do it alone,” Marley said.

Brunswick School Department will host Marley from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Visit BrunswickSD.org for details.
Maine School Administrative District 75 will hold its forum 7 p.m. Thursday. Call (207) 729-9961 for details.

Comments are not available on this story.