A Matter of Life and Death

Monday, 26 February 2024 21:34

A Matter of Life and Death Featured

Written by Joe Dorman, OICA CEO
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OKLAHOMA CITY – On February 7, children in an Oklahoma school got into an altercation which became violent. The day after, one of the children, 16-year-old Nex Benedict, died.

The initial result of a preliminary autopsy suggests the death was not the result of trauma, but no other information has been provided; a full autopsy has not been publicly released. Speculation is rampant about the cause of Nex’s death, but there likely is not much the public will know until a full report is released by the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner.

What we do know is the story is tragically familiar: bullying is getting worse. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of U.S. teens say online harassment and online bullying are a major problem for people their age, while 46% have been cyberbullied. In 2021, high schoolers who are gay, lesbian or bisexual were about twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to say they were bullied at school and online.

Child deaths are far more common than you might expect. The U.S. Census estimates that Oklahoma is home to almost one million children. America’s Health Rankings, part of the United Health Foundation, estimates the Oklahoma death rate for children ages 1-19 is 34.5 per 100,000, or 345 Oklahoma children, ranking the state 14th in the nation. Breaking down that number further for suicide of children in Oklahoma ages 15-19, the number is 18 deaths per 100,000, or about 180 youth.

Children’s mental health nationwide is at a despairing level. Our state, like all others, had significantly increased children’s mental health challenges due to the pandemic and isolation. Contributing to that are Oklahoma’s higher-than-average numbers of issues faced by children, including high rates of abuse, neglect, homelessness, parent drug abuse, parental incarceration, and caretaker inability to cope with the responsibilities.

Adding to the stress children face is the pressure from adults, sometimes in the home or school, and far too often by the hateful rhetoric of public figures about them. To youth, the feeling of the weight of the world created by adults is passed along, including when judgment occurs or when ample support systems are not in place to help reduce anxiety.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the use of words by politicians. Again, I encourage leaders to choose words wisely when it comes to casting light on a particular group of children, a program or school, a community, or some other delineation.

Elected officials, due to media attention, can cause more harm than they realize when categorizing people. We often hear about the need for rights for people, but we also need to equally count responsibility into that conversation.

My advice for all adults and youth alike is to please choose your words wisely. We lost a child, and the other children involved are likely struggling with their involvement in the altercation, along with many others identifying with the story. In fact, Time magazine reports a call crisis center operated by The Rainbow Youth Project has seen a 500% increase in the number of calls it received since the death of Nex.

We do not need to lose any more children due to bullying or rhetoric, and we certainly need our leaders to live up to that title for the best interests of all our children. If you see bullying, report it. If you have authority over a bullying circumstance, properly address the situation. If you see a child struggling, help connect them with counseling by calling 988. It truly could be a matter of life and death.

About OICA: The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy was established in 1983 by a group of citizens seeking to create a strong advocacy network that would provide a voice for the needs of children and youth in Oklahoma, particularly those in the state’s care and those growing up amid poverty, violence, abuse and neglect, disparities, or other situations that put their lives and future at risk. Our mission statement: “Creating awareness, taking action and changing policy to improve the health, safety, and well-being of Oklahoma’s children.”

Last modified on Monday, 26 February 2024 21:37

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