© 2022 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Brunswick Man Says Pandemic Contributed To Suicide Death Of Son, 16

Courtesy photo

The Brunswick community is mourning the death of 16-year-old Spencer Smith, who died last week by suicide. His parents say their son had been struggling with the changes in his life brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

Jay Smith says his son, Spencer, was a great kid. He liked everybody and loved being a part of the high school football team.

“He spent all summer building up for football season to get ready,” he says.

Spencer was a lineman, so when the season switched to flag football to limit contact because of the coronavirus pandemic, Smith says his son took it hard.

“Football season pretty much ended for him when they went to flag football. We noticed that he stopped working out as much as he was to the point where he wasn’t really working out anymore,” he says.

In school, Spencer’s grades slipped. Smith says his son initially went to in-person classes one day a week but was frustrated that he couldn’t socialize with his peers, so he switched to full-time remote learning. He started taking naps in the middle of the day and went to bed earlier than usual.

“Being a teenager — all the fun, all the things teenagers look forward to has been taken away from him,” Smith says.

Looking back, Smith says he now sees warning signs about just how much trouble Spencer was having with changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. He ended his life on Dec. 4. Smith says his son left a note that said he felt like he was locked in the house without any privacy.

“There’s a new disease going around that seems to be spreading faster. It’s depression,” Smith says.

Mental health issues are on the rise. A recent U.S. CDC report found that from April through October, mental health-related emergency department visits for kids increased compared to the previous year. For children ages 5-11, visits grew by 24%. For adolescents 12-17 years old, visits grew by more than 30 percent.

“What the pandemic is doing is it’s requiring physical distancing, which is creating social isolation,” says Greg Marley, director of suicide prevention at the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine.

Marley says isolation is driving an increase in anxiety and depression, as well as substance use and eating disorders. And adolescents, he says, are having an especially hard time.

“Because adolescents really thrive for the most part on that peer interaction, which has been stymied,” he says.

Marley says changes in behavior are often warning signs that someone is struggling. Things like too much sleep or too little. Anything that’s different from a person’s typical habits.

“When you see those, it’s not a time to settle back and wait. It’s a time to step in and invite a conversation. ‘Hey, I’ve been noticing you’re avoiding people and isolating more. How are you doing?’ ‘I’m noticing that you’re taking naps in the middle of the day and you never used to do that. How are you doing?’” he says.

To improve mental wellness as we ride out the rest of the pandemic, Marley suggests exercise, eating well and finding ways to help others. Smith says he’s sharing his son’s story for that very reason.

“We need to get the word out. We need to change something, we need to talk to our kids. We need to help our kids, we’ve got to get our kids into activities so they’ve got something to do so they feel like they’re accomplishing something, so they learn how to grow up and be with people,” he says.

The Brunswick school district is providing virtual and in-person counseling for staff and students. The superintendent says the district is reviewing its support systems and will look for ways to strengthen them in the future. But for now the focus is on supporting Smith’s family and others who are grieving.

If you’re experiencing distress, you can call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 1-888-568-1112 or text HOME to 741741.