The midcoast community is mourning the loss of a Brunswick teen who took his own life last week in a tragic reminder of the toll the coronavirus pandemic is taking on the mental health of young people in Maine and elsewhere.

Spencer Smith was a 16-year-old sophomore at Brunswick High School who loved football, his friends and family, and worked two jobs, his father, Jay Smith, told WMTW News over the weekend. Smith killed himself Friday after struggling with the isolation and time away from friends and sports, his father said.

“The social distance ain’t working for the kids,” Jay Smith told the TV station. “The kids are having it hard.”

Jay Smith could not be reached for comment Monday, and Angela Smith, Spencer Smith’s mother, did not respond to a Facebook message.

Superintendent Phillip Potenziano informed the community of Spencer Smith’s death in a letter on Friday. He said the family had requested that the school not share information about the cause of death, but acknowledged “there have been rumors that this was a suicide death.”

“I want to take this opportunity to remind our community that suicide, when it does occur, is a very complicated act,” he wrote. “No one single thing causes it. But in many cases, a mental health condition is part of it, and these conditions are treatable. It’s really important if you or your child is not feeling well in any way to reach out for help. Suicide should not be an option.”

The Midcoast Youth Center, a coalition formed in the wake of a youth suicide in 2016, also issued a letter to the community about Smith’s death. “His loss has been felt throughout the greater Bath/Brunswick community. We are devastated, confused and angry,” the letter read.

“The times we find ourselves in are some of the hardest any of us have ever had to face. The pandemic continues to rear its ugly head, physical distancing has led to social isolation, and we lack clear leadership to safely navigate our lives. Our children and schools are under incredible stress, each trying their best to make sense of these circumstances. There are no easy answers.”

PANDEMIC TOLL ON YOUNG PEOPLE

Across the country, the mental health of young people has suffered during the pandemic as they’ve spent more time away from friends and teachers, had fewer opportunities to socialize and have been forced to respond to disruptions in routine. Compared to 2019, the number of mental health-related emergency room visits through October this year for children ages 5 to 11 and children ages 12 to 17 increased about 24 and 31 percent, respectively, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We know the isolation and the stresses of this pandemic are impacting people’s mental health significantly,” said Greg Marley, a licensed clinical social worker and director of suicide prevention for the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We’ve seen significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression. It’s been really harsh on people who are trying to address disordered eating, and it’s always, always hard on people, no matter what their age, if they’re involved in relationships where there is interpersonal violence.”

And while the pandemic has impacted everyone’s mental health, Marley said it can be harder for young people to process disruptive or uncomfortable events because of the way their brains work, while adults are better at seeing the big picture and looking past immediate obstacles.

Suicide rates among adolescents, pre-adolescents and young people were increasing well before the pandemic. According to an October 2019 report from the CDC, the suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 was stable from 2000 to 2007, but increased more than 50 percent from 2007 to 2017, to 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people. Marley said social media is one factor that has been cited as contributing to the rise in suicide rates among young people.

The pandemic, he said, has had varying impacts on young people. For some, it means the adults in their lives have a closer eye on them and are more in tune with how they’re doing. For shy or introverted students, the pandemic and move to remote learning may actually be helping them. But for others, the social isolation and inability to participate in sports or gather in groups can be devastating.

“If you’re really goal-driven around sports or group events, whether that be chorus, drama, cheerleading or any kind of sporting team, and you’re cut off from that during this period of time, that’s going to be hard on you,” Marley said. “I hear that over and over again, particularly from youth that are really sports-oriented and their families.”

Nikki Correa, an assistant professor in counselor education at the University of Southern Maine and a former school counselor in Las Vegas, has been studying the pandemic’s impact on students and teachers and is expecting to soon publish a study that surveyed close to 160 school staff, the majority of whom are in Maine.

Correa likened the pandemic to other mass tragedies or crises such as school shootings or terrorist attacks, but on a larger scale. Her research, conducted in the late spring early in the pandemic, found that school staff perceived students were showing a variety of difficulties related to COVID, including being unhappy, depressed, losing their tempers and showing hyperactivity. Teachers and school staff themselves also reported feeling moderately to severely anxious and depressed.

“After doing this and seeing the results, I can only imagine what it’s like now,” Correa said. “I can only imagine it’s gotten worse.”

‘A QUIET LEADER’

Smith was on the Brunswick High football team and had spent all summer training for the season, WMTW reported. When he found out there wouldn’t be a normal football season and it would instead be flag football, he figured that as a lineman he wouldn’t be playing.

“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 the television station.

He said remote learning was also a challenge for his son and that this his grades started to slip this fall. “Thinking back the last few months, we realize we missed catching the signs that things were getting worse for him,” Smith said.

In Facebook posts over the weekend, Angela Smith highlighted her son’s recent struggles. “This remote learning is crap,” she wrote in one post. “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.”

John Schroeder, a senior on the Brunswick football team, remembered meeting Smith when he was an eighth-grader and had started working out with the team. He was quiet, but a hard worker who wasn’t intimidated by the upperclassmen.

“He was like a quiet leader,” said Schroeder, 17. “He wouldn’t tell you what to do or anything but he would lead by example. We could see his love for football and how he wouldn’t complain about anything. He just had the right mindset.”

Schroeder said the news of Smith’s death was a big shock and that the team is trying to come together and find healthy ways to cope. Players have met in small groups with their coaches, who told them that if they need anything they shouldn’t hesitate to reach out.

“I think a lot of students would agree with me that now a lot of school work is based on self-motivation and having everything in your control and when you’re not in the classroom, having your teachers encourage you to do all these things,” Schroeder said. “It can be difficult to put yourself in that hard-working mode and not seeing your friends all the time, that can also hurt a lot of people’s mental health. You feel a lot more alone than you did before.”

A call to the high school principal’s office Monday was referred to Potenziano, the superintendent, who said in an email he is grieving alongside the Smith family and the greater Brunswick community.

“There will be a time to review and strengthen what we have in place for students, but right now it is the time to support this family, our students and staff,” Potenziano said. “As superintendent, I know that the pandemic has been a stressor for everyone – students, staff and parents. Students’ academic life and new family life patterns, work life and social life have been completely disrupted. Our entire state and nation are reeling from feelings of isolation.”

The school district is collaborating with local and state mental health professionals. The high school’s crisis response team is also present in-person and virtually to provide information and support to students and staff, he said.

HOW TO ACCESS RESOURCES

There are a number of resources available for teens and young people in Maine who are struggling with mental health. In April, NAMI launched the Teen Text Support Line, a peer-operated text support line that provides young people a safe place to connect with others. The text line is available from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. each day and can be reached at 207-515-8398 (TEXT). It is not a crisis line and those in crisis should contact the Maine Crisis Line via phone or text at 888-568-1112.

For schools, Correa, the USM professor, said it can be difficult during hybrid learning to keep tabs on students who might only be in-person two days per week. “I know schools are trying to do everything they can like reaching out to students and families, but it’s been extremely difficult to stay connected because the majority of the week students are home, and it’s hard to stay connected with them,” she said. “You can set up a meeting on Zoom or Google Meets, but sometimes a student just doesn’t show up.”

Marley, at the Maine office of NAMI, said staff shouldn’t hesitate to utilize school resource officers to check on students and parents who aren’t responding to communication. Family members, faith leaders and doctors are other resources young people can turn to. For parents, Marley said now is the time to check in on their children. “The biggest thing I would like to leave parents with is that invitation to use this time to step in. Get outside and take a walk and throw snowballs. It’s during those fun, relaxing activities that conversation happens,” he said.

Comments are not available on this story.

Daily Headlines

  • Sign up and get the top stories to begin the day delivered to your inbox at 6 a.m.