NORTHBROOK, Ill.—Dylan Buckner’s bedroom looks like a typical teenager’s room, filled with sports trophies and plastered with posters of football stars.
Chris Buckner, Dylan’s father, points to photos and toys of cheetahs, saying Dylan liked the animals because of their speed. He gestures to a large model of a fish, a life-sized replica of the first one he caught with Dylan.
Almost everything in the room has been left untouched since Dylan’s death three months ago—an attempt by his parents to preserve his memory.
On Jan. 7, the 18-year-old took his own life due to depression exacerbated by the state’s pandemic lockdown measures. Dylan entered a hotel not far from his home and jumped to his death.
His dad told The Epoch Times there is “no doubt in his mind” that the school closures and the state’s extended stay-at-home order aggravated and worsened Dylan’s mental health to the point of no return.
Chris said his wife, Karen, now sometimes sleeps on Dylan’s bed, likely a way to cope with the grief of losing their son. He says he’s telling his son’s story in the hope that it will save a future life and to alert parents to their children’s mental health.
COVID-19-related lockdowns enacted across the country and around the world have been linked to a rise in mental health issues particularly among youth, who have been robbed of in-person interactions, freedom to leave the home, and have been forced to attend online Zoom sessions for hours on end to continue their education.
Medical and psychiatric experts are increasingly worried about the toll the pandemic has had on the next generation.
Doctors have reported children—some as young as 8—intentionally running into traffic, overdosing on pills, and self-harming amid the pandemic. A health care executive told The Epoch Times in August last year that the mental health crisis is “now an epidemic within a pandemic.”
A Family Crisis
Over the course of a few hours, Chris Buckner talked about how his son showed no visible signs of depression and how lockdown measures and school closures need to be reexamined when it comes to the health of teens.
As Chris gave a tour of his home from Dylan’s bedroom to his workout room in the basement, the family’s dog, Lilo, quietly tagged along. It was obvious that Lilo was a great source of comfort for him.
Chris kept his emotions from visibly showing until he was asked about the memories of Dylan that particularly stood out.
“I just miss everything—getting to hug him and talk to him was the best part of my life,” Chris said as he broke down in tears.
“Getting to watch him grow up and graduate from high school, go on to college, get married, and have grandkids—It’s all gone, and it’s not coming back.”
The family is also worried about Dylan’s younger brother, Ethan, and the added struggles he has now. Chris said Dylan was “a great big brother” to his younger sibling.
On the afternoon of Jan. 7, Dylan’s friends warned his parents about a possible danger. Karen used location services to track her son’s location on his phone—it showed he was at a nearby hotel. Chris frantically drove to the location, but he knew he was too late when he saw the police cars.
While data linking teen suicides to the pandemic or school closures is scant and is a subject of debate among experts, there has been a clear rise in mental health problems. The New York Times reported in January that an early warning system among schools in Nevada had tracked 3,100 mental health episodes since March 2020 and by December, 18 students had taken their own lives, prompting schools in the area to push for reopening.
Among 5,412 Americans surveyed at the end of June last year, 41 percent reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, according to an Aug. 14 Morbidity and Mortality report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number is higher among young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, with 75 percent of respondents reporting experiencing at least one adverse mental health condition.
While Dylan had some level of depression before the pandemic, his parents had no idea their son was suffering. He had none of the stereotypical symptoms and hadn’t reached out to his parents about any of his struggles.
A high school senior, Dylan was a star quarterback and sported a 4.7 grade point average and multiple offers to play football at Division III schools; he was planning to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, in recent years, depression had started to take hold before the aspects of his life that once gave him joy were abruptly taken away.
Dylan’s suicide in January was actually his second attempt. His first was in September last year when he jumped off a bridge.
“I thought he had the perfect life until he made his first suicide attempt … up until that point, we really had no inkling at all that he was struggling,” Chris said. “He was popular. … he was an excellent student, very athletic, and good at anything he tried to do.”
Chris says the pandemic and the government’s response to it greatly contributed to his son’s demise. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, Dylan’s depression “was exacerbated by the pandemic and by the lockdown.”
In March of last year, when the lockdown measures really started hitting Illinois, Dylan was getting ready to play spring seven-on-seven football. At the time, schools were shut down, and students took half-day classes via Zoom. Before the pandemic, Dylan, who was very routine-oriented, typically got up early, went to school, then did something football-related.
For the first 30 or 45 days, the shutdowns were just an inconvenience to many people, and Chris said he supported the initial measures. But soon, as Dylan found himself with an abundance of unstructured time on his hands and without his normal outlets and social activities at school, it began taking its toll. As the summer hit, the pandemic was still going, and all summer football activities were canceled.
Not long after that, Illinois officials made the decision that most sports, including football, wouldn’t be played in the fall, unlike in other states in the country. Normally in early September, there would be formal football practices and games. It was at this time that Dylan made his first suicide attempt.
“There were no signs [of depression] that you might see,” Chris said. “But I think the pandemic, the shutdowns, the loss of structure, the inability to interact with his friends, and the inability to play football pushed him into that suicidal zone that came to pass in September.”
Other stories like Dylan’s have emerged in recent months. One mother in Illinois, Lisa Moore, is now suing Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, citing the state’s restrictions as the “proximate cause” of her son’s death.
Chris acknowledged that the pandemic is a complex issue and that he doesn’t have all the answers. But he and his family believe had the pandemic not happened or had the Illinois government done a better job at handling it, their son would still be alive.
“I think if the stricter lockdown portions of it would have been shorter … and if kids had been allowed to play football like they were in so many other states, I think that Dylan would still be here,” he said.
Chris believes it’s important to assess the lockdown measures in terms of how to respond over the course of time. He pointed out that treatments for the disease have improved and that a vaccine is now available.
Lockdown measures need to “be appropriately changed in response to that,” he said.
After Dylan’s first attempt on his life, his parents did everything they could to try to help him. There was extensive inpatient and outpatient therapy in the months that followed, and they tried many, if not all, of the common anti-depression medications for children. He also had traditional talking therapy, among other services.
But at the end of the day, the drugs and psychotherapy “weren’t really effective for him,” Chris said.
“It’s made me realize that mental illness for Dylan was much like many forms of cancer, where we just don’t really know the cure, or we don’t really have effective treatments,” he said.
Mental illness, according to Chris, might be similar to substance abuse in that teens are going to try to hide it from their parents. Part of the symptoms of feeling depressed and suicidal is thinking that you’re a burden. Hence, telling your parents about these troubles might exacerbate that feeling.
After they received the call from police in September when Dylan made the first attempt on his life, Chris thought the authorities had called the wrong number—they didn’t think it was possible. In Dylan’s case, there was no clear interpersonal crisis, such as a sign of a breakup.
“We did everything we could, and nothing worked for him,” Chris said. “I know that’s the case for a lot of people that battle, and ultimately lose their battle, with mental illness.
“The idle minds do the devil’s work stereotype … I think absolutely applied,” he said.
Nicole Avena, assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University, told The Epoch Times last year that mental health problems should “absolutely” be treated as a national health crisis.
“People are worried about a possible second wave of the virus, but I can guarantee we will have a second wave of mental health crisis, which is already unfolding with increased suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol use,” she said.
On the matter of school closures, Chris said he believes children are “absolutely much better off in school.” While there might be some students who for whatever reason might do better on Zoom or other remote learning, the issue is the choice as those children can make the decision to stay at home. But in many places, teens don’t have the choice to be able to attend school.
New York-based psychiatrist Dr. Zlatin Ivanov has witnessed firsthand a recent spike in clients suffering from anxiety, telling The Epoch Times that “cases of depression went through the roof” last year. Ivanov said many are struggling from missing out on their daily routines and other seemingly small pleasures.
While medical professionals agree that social distancing is crucial for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, “the psychiatrists are well aware of the psychological impact this will have on a person’s life,” he said.
A person is considered to be experiencing a mental health issue when they struggle with day-to-day life, according to Ivanov. People often come to him because they don’t feel like themselves, get angry easily, lack energy, feel restless, can’t sleep, or experience panic attacks out of the blue.
Chris still doesn’t know exactly what caused his son’s depression. He said Dylan was very empathetic and after talking with other parents and survivors of suicide, he learned that perhaps empathetic kids are more at risk of depression and suicide “because they struggle hearing about their friends’ problems and take on some of those struggles.”
Dylan had many friends with special needs, and he was active as a buddy and mentor, according to his dad. Even before high school, he took a special interest in some kids at summer camp who had special needs. And in tough games or after tough losses, Dylan was always more worried about how his teammates were doing.
Before the pandemic, suicide was already a problem for youth. In 2018, it was the second-leading cause of death “among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That year, the suicide rate among males was nearly four times higher (22.8 per 100,000) than among females (6.2 per 100,000).
Chris has a message for other teens suffering mentally: It’s OK not to be OK, and things will get better. What these teens are feeling “is not unique to you” and that parents “will love you unconditionally.” He encourages any children who are struggling to talk with their parents or some other trusted adult.
“Don’t be embarrassed by it,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. … So get help.”
More resources need to be invested into treating mental illness and depression, he said. Talking about these conditions also needs to be normalized in order to eliminate any associated stigma.
Three months have passed since his son’s death, but Chris said the pain the family feels is constant. The day before the interview, Chris had attended a Zoom meeting with other parents who had lost their children, and someone on the group was still battling grief 20 years after losing their child to suicide.
“It’s just very hard to imagine a pain worse than the loss of a child through suicide,” he said. “The person that commits suicide only dies once but the survivors die 1,000 deaths reliving it, wondering why and what they could have done differently or what caused it.”
As Chris got ready to drop his son Ethan off at football practice, he said he was lucky to have Dylan for 18 years and said he will try to live his life like he would have wanted them to.
If you or someone you know in the United States is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.