COVID Robbed a Washington Teen of All Hope. Don't Let It Happen Again, Says Father

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Sixteen-year-old Christian Robbins never tested positive for the coronavirus. He never developed COVID-19.

But he is as much a victim of the pandemic as those who did.

His father, Ted Robbins of Richland, could not be prouder of him.

Christian stood six feet tall in eighth grade and weighed 200 pounds. Colleges were already following him as he played football as a freshman at Richland High School.

Academics came easily for him. He was "brilliant" in mathematics and tutored other students, his father said. He was an equally good writer.

"Giving, kind, goofy, smart, articulate" was how his father described him.

But on the morning of April 27 the police came to the door of the Robbins family home.

Sometime during the night Christian had driven his mother's car to rural Oregon. He parked the car, walked to a lake and took his own life.

He didn't want his family to find his body.

The Centers for Disease Control reported seeing symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorder increase considerably in the United States spring this year compared with spring of 2019.

Three times as many people surveyed had symptoms of anxiety disorder and four times as many people reported depressive disorder.

When data was compared to 2018, twice as many people responding to a late June survey reported serious consideration of suicide in the previous 30 days.

Younger adults — the report did not look at teens — were among the key groups that it found were most likely to seriously consider suicide.

Bullying, bipolar disorder

Christian's family knew he was struggling.

In middle school he was bullied. As a freshman at Richland High he would hide out in the library to eat his lunch in peace, his father said.

He had a passion for football, playing defensive end for the Bombers. But a knee injury ended his football days after just one year on the high school team.

Bipolar disorder runs in his family and his parents were watching for signs as he hit puberty.

At the end of eight grade, anxious and losing self esteem, he was diagnosed with the disorder.

Not long afterward his close friends, who came over to his house every weekend, persuaded him to tell his parents just how desperate he felt.

He said he was afraid he could not make it through the night, his father remembers.

Christian would spend about 10 days as a patient at Twin Rivers Landing in Yakima. His family could find no inpatient treatment for youth in the Tri-Cities.

He returned home to a regimen of medication and other treatment and seemed to be doing OK.

He now was a student at Three Rivers HomeLink in Richland and although, just a high school sophomore, was taking additional classes at Columbia Basin College.

"He was engaging," his father said. "He had his friend network that was coming over every single weekend as they had for years and spending time with him."

But then the COVID pandemic hit the Tri-Cities area.

Not only did he have the interaction of classes, but his close friends could no longer come over. Extra caution was needed because one close friend had an autoimmune disorder.

'Friends that loved him'

He had struggled but withstood bullying and the loss of football and was coping with bipolar disorder.

But the social isolation was the last chink in Christian's armor, his father said.

The disease took away his support network of friends, and texting and talking on line was no substitute for in-person talks and the hugs that Christian gave out freely.

"He was being over hypersensitive to everything happening in his life," his father said. With no social interaction with his peers, he had all day to overthink and was drowning in a firehouse of emotions.

"He could never see that he had wonderful people that loved him and friends that loved him," his father said. "He always thought that nobody liked him."

He didn't seem depressed, nor was he giving away his possessions, a classic sign of suicidal plans.

But unbeknownst to his parents, he was writing letters to everyone important in his life — friends, family, coaches. He even wrote employment reference letters for his friends.

In the letters he said that the social isolation of COVID was the last straw for him.

Mixed Tri-Cities statistics

The statistics on suicide in the Tri-Cities area since the start of the pandemic are mixed, without providing clear evidence on how COVID-19 fears, stress and isolation may have added to the numbers.

In Franklin County, there have already been twice as many suicides this year as there were in all of 2019.

Coroner Curtis McGary has ruled eight deaths as suicides this year compared to four in all of last year.

But in Benton County, the number of suicides so far this year are close to the same time period for last year.

Although suicides were up this spring compared to last, as of this fall there have been 27 deaths in Benton County ruled a suicide. But by late October 2019 there had been 29 suicides, said Coroner Bill Leach.

Christian Robbins is not included in those numbers, since his death was in Oregon.

Advice for parents

In general friends are the preferred support system for adolescents, said Courtney Hesla, vice president of Comprehensive Healthcare, a nonprofit with Mid-Columbia clinics, including in Pasco, Walla Walla and Sunnyside.

Anything that decreases time spent at school can lead to less social interaction and potentially losing touch with friends, she said.

"With the current state of affairs, if adolescents do not have a way to maintain social contacts they can be at higher risk of developing depression," she said.

Youth have not developed the coping skills that typically come with life experience for adults, who understand that "this too, shall pass," she said.

The changes brought by the pandemic may be particularly stressful for students who are part of a minority group, whether racial or LGBTQ, said William Waters, director of Benton and Franklin County services for Comprehensive Healthcare.

They may already be isolated and normal support from school friends and groups that in a typical school year help provide a safe space for them and reinforce their identity development may be lost, making them more isolated than before, he said.

If adolescents seem much more tired, irritable and angry and lack motivation or have withdrawn from activities they could do that could be a sign of depression. Risk taking also can be a signal.

"We are really encouraging parents to just ask the question — How are you feeling? Are you feeling more sad than usual?" Hesla said.

Getting creative about planning more activities may help, or it may be time to seek additional help, whether from a faith leader or a counselor.

It's OK to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide and it won't induce thoughts of suicide, she said.

If you hear statements like, "You would be better off without me," keep asking questions like why they think that, who long have they been thinking that and if they think about that everyday.

"With more questions you get more detail," she said. "You might opt to call the crisis line then and there."

'Save another kid'

Now Christian's father, Ted Robbins, advocates for giving families a choice to get students back in school.

"Our schools have no idea the damage this is causing to our youth. Just shameful," he wrote on a petition he signed recently that urged the Kennewick School District to get students back in classrooms.

Many evenings his family, including his mom Sarah and a younger brother and sister, visit his grave in Richland and then walk the grounds with Christian's dog, Abby.

Ted Robbins maintains a Facebook page for Christian. He posts fun memories, like the time Christian was having so much fun on a camping trip that he just laughed when a seagull blasted him with droppings

But he also posts information on support groups and advocacy to prevent youth suicide.

"I would just implore parents not to give up," he said. "Our hope is we can save another kid."

Crisis resources

Those in crisis and needing someone to talk to can contact:

— Lourdes Health Crisis Services at 509-783-0500.

— Comprehensive Healthcare crisis line 800-572-8122.

— National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK or 800-273-8255 for English and 888-628-9454 for Spanish.

— Crisis Text Line: t ext "START" to 741-741

— Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth: 866-488-7386, or text "START" to 678-678

The Facebook page of Prosser-based Mustangs Matters, a collaboration of students and mental health and other professionals, also provides information and resources for mental health conditions, including student discussions on coping with COVID restrictions.

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(c)2020 Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

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