A 2011 online memorial expresses: “[Our son] took his own life one week before his 15th birthday. It does not get any easier as each day goes by. There is always someone missing wherever we go, whatever we do. I now know what a broken heart is, and it is a physical pain that you can feel. You have to force yourself to go on each day without him when all you want to do is curl up in a ball and shut the world out.”
This boy was a Mounds View High School ninth-grader. A few months later another student’s life ended in suicide, followed in 2015 by a third devastating loss. This is not unique to Mounds View. Wayzata High School recently experienced four suicides in only two years.
In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death between ages 12 and 18, and too little is being done to address it.
We can’t know exactly what causes any one of these tragedies, but some risk factors are becoming clear.
A 2011 study by researchers at the Centers For Disease Control examined sleep and behavior patterns in 12,154 adolescents in grades 9-12. Among kids who got less than eight hours of sleep on an average school night, 31.1 percent experienced depression, defined as feeling “sad or hopeless almost every day for at least 2 or more weeks in a row so that they stopped doing some usual activities.” Also, 16.8 percent of these fatigued children “seriously considered attempting suicide” over a 12-month period.
Yet among teens who got at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night, the rate of depression was only 21.6 percent and suicidal thoughts affected only 9.8 percent. Thus, getting eight hours of sleep was associated with a 31 percent lower rate of depression and with a 42 percent lower rate of suicidal thoughts.
Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, released a study in 2014 involving 9,000 high school students that illustrated the relationship between the start time of schools and the number of hours of sleep that students receive. For example, a 7:30 a.m. start time provided 33.6 percent of students eight hours of sleep while an 8:55 a.m. start offered 66.2 percent eight hours of rest.
What would happen if Mounds View’s 3,365 high school students responded to changed start times as these large studies imply they might? We would find that if Mounds View’s two high schools changed their start from the current 7:25 a.m. to 8:35 a.m., 80 students might not experience a serious episode of depression and 59 students might not “seriously consider attempting suicide” over a 12-month period.
University of Minnesota professor of pediatrics — and district parent — Dr. Glenn Gourley supports the value of applying these findings to our district, stating: “This insight into the relationship between sleep and behavior suggests a real opportunity to lower risk and improve student safety.”
Concerned parents are working to engage our district leaders in a serious look at why our region’s teens must rise so early. There is a great deal of evidence that establishes an association between later start times and improved academics, less cigarette, alcohol, drug and marijuana use, fewer car crashes, lower caffeine consumption and improved school attendance. Yet what could be more powerful than the chance to significantly lower the risks of suicide and depression among our teens?
These are our schools and our kids, and we can advocate for changes to benefit the health and safety of our young people. Look for parents like us who share your opinion. Send respectful requests to your district leaders and tell them why this is important to you. And elect officials who share your views.
Our district has four incumbents up for election who all voted “no change” last year. Yet there is one additional candidate who is a strong supporter of later high school start times.
Think about the relative importance of bus schedules, after-school activity start times and “existing joint powers agreements” — and then remember that absent Mounds View student and the loving people he left behind.
John MacHalec, of North Oaks, is a parent in the Mounds View school district.