Phyllis Fagell is a middle school counselor and author of Middle School Matters. One day one of her students said that a friend she only knew from social media planned to kill himself. As Fagell writes in Monday's Washington Post, she -- Fagell -- was able to track down the boy's school but his principal was shocked: The boy didn't even seem depressed.
Sometimes, Fagell says, it is hard to know a child is suffering. And yet, kids are:
Adolescent children are far less likely to commit suicide than adults, but they have not been immune from a nationwide increase in suicides over the past two decades. The CDC reports that from 1999 to 2017, the suicide rate among boys ages 10 to 14 grew from 1.9 suicides per 100,000 people to 3.3. Among girls, suicides roughly tripled from 0.5 per 100,000 to 1.7.
Now parents, schools and communities are "scrambling to meet kids' needs," Fagell says. She lists six things they can do. It's a great article -- please read them all. But here, but we will skip to #2, because it is one we talk about a lot:
Prioritize self-directed play
As recess decreases and testing increases, there has been a rise in children’s mental disorders, says Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and the author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.” The cause and effect should be obvious, he notes. “Life without play is depressing.”
“Children are almost like prisoners today,” he says. “They’re constantly being monitored, their sense of control over their lives has declined, and that sets them up for depression and anxiety.” Instead of just going out to play, they are frequently put in competitive, anxiety-provoking conditions, such as trying to earn a spot on a team or win a game.
Gray co-founded Let Grow with Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free-Range Kids, to help communities prioritize play. Michael Hynes, the schools superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District in New York, now offers elementary and secondary students one hour of self-directed play before school. “It’s the closest thing to a silver bullet I’ve ever seen in my 20-plus years serving children in education,” he says. “Kids are less anxious, upset and depressed.”
Parents can help change the tide. Make the case for more recess at school and prioritize unstructured play at home. Organize weekend block parties and coordinate with neighbors to send kids outside at the same time to just play.
And prioritizing free, unstructured, unsupervised time is a genius move, too. Kids need space to think, do and be that is not for a grade, resume, or trophy. Time when they can figure out what they enjoy doing-- and make life (more) worth living.
Good luck to us all.