Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The buses rolled into Hobbs earlier this month from cities and towns both near and far across southeastern New Mexico, expressions of love and support from a concerned brotherhood written plainly all over their windows.
From Eunice and Artesia, from Fort Sumner and Carlsbad, from Portales and Lovington, the school buses illuminated a neighbor’s desire to have the back of a friend.
On the window of one of those buses was written the following:
“It’s ok not 2 B OK.”
The death last week of a varsity football player from Hobbs High School once again focused attention on the mental health of teenagers and the ongoing toll it’s having in New Mexico.
“Our entire state is hurting,” said Hobbs Superintendent T.J. Parks. “We need something good to happen in our lives.”
Anecdotally, social media has been overflowing with posts over the past several months from students, parents, teachers, coaches, administrators and politicians alike, all speaking out during this prolonged isolation that the coronavirus has spawned.
Students – certainly not just athletes – have admitted to being depressed for any numbers of reasons, issues that are not restricted to not having a sport to play this year.
This has manifested itself in tragic ways.
The New Mexico Activities Association said that seven student-athletes – in middle school and high school – committed suicide in the late-summer period from the end of July through the middle of September.
It is unknown what that number is today, though it appears to be at least one higher as of early December.
“These are always extremely difficult issues to talk about when dealing with students and suicide,” said New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, himself a former longtime high school coach in Silver City and Bayard. “I know it is extremely heartbreaking, and we don’t know the reasons why this may be occurring. We know it does impact families, it does impact schools, it does impact communities in ways that you never recover from.”
This year especially has been mentally taxing for students who are learning in a remote model, separated from friends, classmates and teammates.
The number of suicides filtered its way to the state’s Legislative Finance Committee this fall. And although this was not part of a public presentation, a tweet by state Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, shoved the topic into what is a hugely uncomfortable, statewide spotlight.
“When kids don’t have something to do, they find something to do, and it’s not healthy,” said Roswell High football coach Jeff Lynn, one of the most outspoken coaches on the detriments students have continually battled. “Suicides, grades? Those are things you can measure. What I worry about is what’s going on underneath the surface. I had a mother come up to me back in April, and she said she was worried her son was addicted to internet porn. Those are the things you can’t see.”
A report in the Journal earlier this week cited an LFC Action Plan, which points out that, for young adults ages 15-24, deaths by suicide increased slightly this year (for the months January through October) when compared to last year. The number was also slightly higher for children under 15, according to the LFC. The report also said it is possible that a delay in determining cause of deaths may explain why there doesn’t appear to be a larger increase in suicide numbers this year.
“While this increase is not statistically significant, it is potentially concerning as suicides in this age group also increased between 2018 and 2019, and as there is evidence of increased behavioral health needs for youth,” the report says.
There is no way to independently corroborate the number of student suicides that have occurred during this school year, as the Dow tweet only reflects, and advances, information relayed to officials at the NMAA. The number may be higher and it may not include unreported suicides. Nor does it take into account teenage suicides that have occurred outside of the athletics realm. And, most crucially, it is not immediately known whether it was the pandemic’s fallout that specifically contributed to any individual suicide.
“For students not having access to their teachers and coaches … we felt it was important to pass along any data we received,” NMAA executive director Sally Marquez said. The NMAA oversees grades 7-12. The LFC asked for input the NMAA received from schools, Marquez added.
In July, the Journal reported that New Mexico had the highest suicide rate in the nation for 2018, as revealed in data released by the American Association of Suicidology. Suicide is responsible for 29% of deaths in the 15-24 age group, the LFC analysis revealed.
New Mexico ranked first in the nation for youth suicides in the 15-19 age group in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state overall ranked fourth that year, behind Montana, Alaska and Wyoming, with 23.3 suicides per 100,000 people – well above the national average of 16.7.
Suicide in 2020 is the second-leading cause of death in New Mexico in the 10-34 age group.
The NMAA earlier this year announced a mental health awareness initiative, including a hotline (1-855-662-7474) they hope students will call if they’re feeling despondent.
“We have our body, mind and spirit,” Dow said. “To prohibit the engagement of one (of those) is not going to work.”
Already there have been petitions and numerous athlete-led rallies the last 10 weeks, pleading with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to allow them to return to class and to participate in their sports.
As it currently stands, all of the NMAA’s sanctioned sports will be held in an extremely compact February to late-June calendar in 2021. But these sports will be played only with either a comprehensive relaxation of the state’s health order, which is not forthcoming any time soon, or a specific go-ahead from Lujan Grisham.
There has been, and remains, rapidly growing anxiety among athletes and coaches that New Mexico won’t have any high school sports played in the spring 2021 semester.
“When school isn’t in session, it has a ripple effect on the entire community,” Parks said.
Lynn added that the smaller, more rural communities in New Mexico are perhaps facing a more uphill challenge: “Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat … they’re just taking these kids to crazytown.”
Moreover, while scores of athletes have locked in their college destinations, an untold number of their peers are left wondering if they’ll even have a senior season, a time many urgently need to earn a scholarship offer. And the uncertainty of it all, the constant stress, countless parents have said, is simply exhausting their children.
“It’s so important that we try to address it,” Morales said. “What we do know is (what happened in Hobbs) should be a call to every single one of us to do our part, to every community, to address the virus, to get the numbers down, to reduce the infection rate, and to get our kids back into school and on the playing field.”
That sense of togetherness was never more evident than those buses parked in the lot near famous Ralph Tasker Arena in Hobbs.
“I was visiting with a gentleman the other day and he had one of the most interesting quotes, and it really burns a hole in my brain,” Parks said.
“The kids are the least infected, but the most impacted, by COVID.”