Maine is mourning the loss of Spencer Smith, a 16-year-old sophomore at Brunswick High School who tragically took his life last week due to the social isolation caused by our state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Spencer’s life was upended this year. His education shifted to remote learning where he struggled to succeed, and his football season was cancelled. According to his father, Jay Smith, the loss of football took a major toll on Spencer’s mental health.
After spending most of the spring and summer working out in preparation for this year’s football season, Spencer was devastated to learn his season was effectively cancelled. As a lineman, the switch from tackle football to flag football left he and his fellow lineman without a sport to play this fall.
“As soon as he found out it wasn’t going to be a regular football season, looking back, we noticed he stopped working out. He stopped riding his bike as much to the point he didn’t even work out anymore. Instead of working out, he took naps,” Jay Smith told WMTW.
Equally as challenging for Spencer was the transition to remote learning. His grades began to slip this year when his classes moved to a virtual setting. Earlier in the school year, Spencer was attending school in the classroom one day per week, but eventually asked his parents if he could stay home full-time because he did not like being in school without the ability interact with his friends.
Spencer’s mother, Angela Smith, took to Facebook last weekend to share the struggles her son experienced this year.
“This remote learning is crap. I just lost a son because he couldn’t be with his friends. He was trapped in the house. He felt like he lost his friends and had a hard time with his school work. He felt he had no future. He hated what society was becoming. So he took the easy way out. Parents please take everything your kids are saying seriously. Give them a huge hug and don’t let go.”
Jay Smith told NBC News that his son left a note behind “detailing his struggles with being isolated, writing that he felt like he was ‘locked in this house.’”
Jay Smith joined Laura Ingraham on Fox News this week to discuss what happened to his son.
“I truly believe today that, if he was still able to do his football season, be with his friends and his activities in school, that he would be on a high right now and loving life once again,” he said.
“Stop listening to the experts. They’re not the experts. The parents are the experts of their children and what they want to do,” he said. “The school boards are listening to the wrong experts. Our kids aren’t an average number on a scale. Each one is their own brilliant mind, and they need their own learning the way they want it.”
The Press Herald reported two weeks ago that calls to mental health help lines in Maine are increasing amid the pandemic. Sweetser, a mental health agency in Maine, has seen a 40 percent increase in calls to its Intentional Warm Line, a non-crisis peer support line, since the start of the pandemic.
According to the Press Herald, in the 12 months before the pandemic, Sweetser’s saw an average of 1,958 calls per month to its warm line, but that number has increased to 2,829 since April 1. The average time mental health professionals spent with each caller also increased by 50 percent. The Maine Crisis Line, managed by the Opportunity Alliance, has also seen a 20 percent increase in call volumes during the pandemic.
Increases in mental health struggles and suicidal ideation during the pandemic are not unique to Maine. Over the summer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study that found, during late June, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.
There’s no question that public policy in the coronavirus age is negatively impacting our families and communities. Shuttering schools and limiting human interaction in attempt to stop germs from spreading comes with enormous human costs; costs far greater than those easily observable ones, like the economic toll on state and local governments or struggling small businesses.
Jay Smith encourages all parents to talk with their kids, take their concerns seriously and keep an eye out for how they’re coping with all the changes they’ve experienced during the pandemic.
“Parents, if you think your kids are doing fine, talk to them. Most of all, give them a hug daily,” he said.
If you’re experiencing feelings of isolation, anxiety or depression, a number of resources are available to you.
You can call the Maine Crisis Line at 1-888-568-1112.
The Intentional Peer Support Warm Line is 866-771-9276.
The NAMI Maine Helpline is 1-800-464-5767.
The National Suicide Hotline is 800-273-8255.
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