One of the most tragic aspects of the COVID lockdowns has been the marked rise in mental health issues and suicide among adolescents, but one family touched by such tragedy is working to provide help to other struggling teens.
Children and teenagers face many challenges in modern society, but with the COVID pandemic leaving young people isolated and fearful, many are experiencing mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist who is a columnist and host of the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting, started sounding the alarm last September about the pandemic’s impact on teenagers.
“Teenagers are in a developmental space where it is critically important that they have regular contact with their peers and are able to develop close and ongoing relationships with adults outside the home, such as their teachers, their coaches, their advisers,” she explained. “And I worry very much about what it means for that to be disrupted by the pandemic.”
The statistics bear this out. A recent survey of 1,500 Chicago parents, for example, found that almost half had discussed mental or behavioral health concerns with their child’s primary care doctor within the last 6 to 12 months. Moreover, in children ages 2-11, 23 percent were reported to have acted out or thrown tantrums more often, 19 percent were showing more clinginess, 11 percent had more nightmares, 8 percent had more headaches, and 8 percent had more stomach pains.
Dr. Matthew Davis, director of Lurie’s Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute, noted, “We have a behavioral health epidemic for children…. The level of need, the way in which it affects children of all ages and the challenges that we have in responding in our health care system are all very concerning to the pediatric community and to families across the city.”
Parents Heathyr Sidle and Michael Myronuk experienced the worst of COVID’s effects on teenagers when their son, Michael Jr., committed suicide in late 2020. He was just 14 years old.
“One of the most unique kids I’ve ever met,” Sidle told CBN News. “He just had a really cool personality.”
Myronuk said, “Pretty much one of my favorite people in the world, not from being my son but just because of his insight, his humor, goofiness, intelligence.”
Unfortunately, the switch to virtual learning had been difficult for Michael Jr. despite being an honors student. Sidle said, “I’m getting these reports every day that says failing, failing, failing. Michael’s like, ‘I turned it in.’ And there’s this pressure building inside of him where I’m literally freaking out thinking my kid is going to fail. He was already 30 assignments behind.”
Tragically, the pressure and isolation likely contributed to her son’s suicide last October.
Sidle recounted the events leading up to that day, saying, “The night before he took his life the two of us were hanging out eating dinner, watching a movie. We had a perfectly great night. And the next morning he went to his dad’s house, he had a plan.”
She recalled, “He sent me a text after I’d already dropped him off. I literally probably almost caused a 20-car pileup cause I turned around in the middle of Baltimore City. I wasn’t even thinking cause I freaked out and drove back to his house and by that time it was too late.”
Michael Jr.’s father blamed the lockdowns, saying, “The response to the virus has been worse than the virus itself for our younger people. For a lot of kids, school is the one place that they get to be themselves, that they have the social interaction that they get a break from whatever may be going on or the stressors at home.”
Myronuk and Sidle have dealt with their grief by launching the Arrow of Light Foundation in their son’s honor. The foundation seeks to increase awareness and provide support for children and parents struggling with mental health issues. “We want to remove any financial obstacles, we want to help remove that stigma by talking about it,” she said, noting that the foundation will also provide Uber gift cards to assist in transporting teens to appointments or provide guidance in using telehealth services. “Whatever it takes to help them with their mental health.”
Sidle relies on her faith to get her through this difficult time. She explained, “Just having that commitment to turn to God every day. I just put this whole situation at His feet and said, ‘You gotta help me cause I can’t do this by myself.’ So that’s really kept me.”
She added, “My son and I were just baptized together the year before happened in 2019 and I truly believe that he’s a believer, but the enemy was talking louder. So, we lost him. We lost the battle, but we haven’t lost the war.”
Mental health issues and especially suicide are heartbreaking at any age, but for a family to lose a child who is only 14 years old is even more devastating. Mr. Myronuk is correct: Forcing children and teenagers to isolate in fear over the last year has been far more dangerous to young people than allowing them to go about their normal lives. Children and teens have a very low risk of catching or spreading the virus, and it is unthinkable and maddening that they have been subject to such deprivation and harm.
Adolescents need a sense of normalcy and routine — and they especially need contact with friends and mentors. By denying them the chance to go to school, we have denied them a quality education, socialization, and the opportunity to play sports and participate in other extracurricular and healthy activities. It is imperative that adolescents be allowed to return to normal life as quickly as possible.
While Sidle and Myronuk have faced what no parent ever wants to face, their message is one of hope and encouragement. Through Christ we can draw strength and achieve the ultimate victory over death.
If anyone is struggling with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone, whether that be the Arrow of Light Foundation, friends or family, or a mental health professional or doctor. Everyone who cares about you will be so happy that you did.