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Suicides among N.C. youth increasing
Published Wednesday, February 27, 2019
by Sarah Ovaska-Few, N.C. Health News

Child health experts are startled by the steady increase of adolescent suicides in North Carolina, with the state experiencing twice the rate of deaths among older children as it did a decade ago.

Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death of children from age 10 to 17, topped only by motor vehicle deaths, according to the joint annual report card on the health of North Carolina children released this week by the advocacy group N.C. Child and the N.C. Institute of Medicine, a think tank.

“This is something we need to be talking about,” said Whitney Tucker, N.C. Child’s research director and one of the report’s primary authors. “This really is an epidemic.”

The increase in suicides earned the state a “D” on the annual report card, which also pointed out that 8.2 percent of high-schoolers reported having a suicide attempt, and nearly twice that number seriously considered suicide in 2017.

There was a total of 44 children between 10 and 17 who died in 2017 from suicide, the most recent calendar year data was available. Though those numbers may seem small, the fact that suicides doubled in frequency from a decade prior and mirror national increases in the teen and adult populations was reason to highlight in this year’s report on child health, said Adam Zolotor, a family doctor who is president of  the N.C. Institute of Medicine and co-author of the annual report card.

While those involved with youth are well aware of the challenges related to teenagers’ mental health, the issue hasn’t gotten as much attention on the state policy level, Zolotor said. “We’re trying to shine a light on it,” he said.

The release of the report cards, and focus on suicide as a worrying trend, comes on the heels of a national study  published in JAMA Pediatrics this month that found North Carolina has the poorest record in the country in providing mental health services to children with behavioral health diagnoses. That study found most (72 percent) of North Carolina children diagnosed with a behavioral health condition were unable to meet with a licensed mental health provider within the last year.

With youth, more so than in the general population, suicide is not always a direct result of documented depression or observable mental illness but can occur after a sudden shock or emotional event, Earls said. That’s why many in the public health field are also looking at reducing access to lethal devices, such as encouraging the use of gun locks for firearms and restricting access to prescription drugs, to reduce the chances a young person has access to things that could quickly cause irreparable harm.

CCNC has been encouraging practitioners it works with who treat children who use Medicaid to screen for depressive episodes or other mental health issues, and then have resources already identified in the community to refer children and their families to.

CCNC has seen the effort to encourage screenings increase, with more than half of pediatricians now screening for depression and other behavioral risks, up from just 12 percent in 2016. Earls hopes those screening rates will continue to climb, as more pediatricians join school districts, parents and others in supporting struggling adolescents.

Need help? The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

It’s a challenge to get the help they need, because of a lack of resources as well as the continuing stigma against mental health needs. And then, there’s also the cost, Tucker said. Not every insurance plan covers behavioral health, and the expense can add up quickly for a family.

“In our state, mental health care is particularly expensive,” Tucker said.



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