NMPED: Fans can return with prep sports

Even as the pandemic has taken a turn for the less-severe this year - with vaccination rates rising and economies beginning to show signs of recovery - mental health professionals throughout the world have seen clear indicators of a coming psychosocial crisis. One of their biggest concerns is how this problem impacts our kids, who had even fewer outlets to vent their pandemic-related anxieties than adults did.

Youth depression and suicides already appear to be rising in our state, where the numbers historically have always been high compared to the rest of the nation.

In 2018, New Mexico recorded the highest suicide rate of any state, with a total of 535 suicides reported that year. Narrowing down the demographic information to youth, the situation looks more severe. Before the pandemic began complicating their lives, the suicide rate among kids in this state was on the rise, increasing by 88 percent from 2017 to 2018 for children between the ages of 5 and 14.

Our health department has yet to produce its data for 2020, but states that have published their stats show a concerning accleration in youth suicide that many predicted would come along with the pandemic. On the other side of Taos County's northern border in Southern Colorado, for example, the youth suicide rate rose by 50 percent in 2020. Pinpointing the cause of this rise isn't easy, but most mental health professionals say the pandemic - with its prolonged social isolation and lack of activities for kids - is a clear contributing factor.

While no magic bullet, sports programs finally returning to our schools will be critical in helping kids restore not only their physical health, but their mental health as well in the wake of the public health crisis.

New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham curtailed infection rates and deaths in this state by enforcing some of the most stringent pandemic lockdowns in the country, but this also meant students didn't see other students because in-person learning was put on pause. And student-athletes - whether star performers or recreationalists - missed out on most or all of last year's season after fields and courts were also closed off. Even if you didn't play sports growing up, it's easy to imagine how devastating this was for kids who live for sports, or at least experience some form of escape in participating in them.

Sports increase leadership and teamwork skills, build confidence and create structure - all of which translate to better academic and social performance. Particularly in a state with ongoing substance abuse problems and a high crime rate, sports can also keep kids out of trouble.

Play ball.

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