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Terry McLaughlin: Youth suicide spikes in pandemic

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for those under the age of 25. This major public health threat has only been amplified during the past year, as the introduction of the COVID-19 virus on the American landscape has deprived our youth of educational, emotional, and social development opportunities.

15 to 24 year olds constitute 91% of youth suicides. Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that deaths from Covid among all ages from 0 to 24 accounts for only 1.2% of total deaths in this age range. Yet deaths in the 15-24 age group jumped 23%, from 106.4 per 100,000 in 2019 to 131.7 per 100,000 in 2020.

As early as June 2020, CDC Director Robert Redfield remarked that “there has been another cost we’ve seen, particularly in high schools. We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose.”



Complete national suicide data for 2020 likely won’t be publicly available until 2022, but Dr. Redfield’s claim appears to be supported by the increase in calls and emails experienced by mental illness hotlines.

Between March and August 2020, the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine reported an increase of 65% in telephone calls and emails.




The Trevor Project, which targets suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, experienced a doubling of its normal call volume.

In November 2020, Crisis Text Line received 180,000 calls, an increase of 30,000 from the previous month, and over 90% of those calls were from people under the age of 35.

The number of suicides in Fresno County jumped a staggering 70% in June 2020 compared to June 2019. Suicides in Los Alamos, New Mexico, tripled during the first eight months of 2020. Often called “deaths of despair,” such deaths tend to be higher among youths.

“We know that participation in sports and a connection to school can have a profound protective effect,” said Pittsburgh psychiatry professor David Brent. University of Oregon clinical psychology professor Nick Allen said, “The stressor that COVID represents takes away good things. You can’t go to sporting events. You can’t see your friends. You can’t go to parties. … We’re taking away high points in people’s lives that give them reward and meaning. … Over time, the loss of pleasure is going to drive you down a lot more.”

“While adults have had multiple years to practice stress management and build skills around that,” says YouthLine program director, Emily Moser, “young people haven’t.” According to Moser, many of YouthLine’s callers expressed grief and despair over the loss of after-school activities, spending time with friends, and missing milestones such as graduations.

FAIR Health is an independent national non-profit dedicated to bringing transparency to healthcare costs and health insurance information. The organization possesses the nation’s largest collection of private healthcare claims data. Defining the pediatric population as those aged 0-22 years, and focusing on the age groups 13-18 and 19-22, FAIR Health studied the effects of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns and restrictions on US pediatric mental health, publishing the results in a white paper entitled “The Impact of Covid-19 on Pediatric Mental Health: A Study of Private Healthcare Claims.”

FAIR Health analyzed data from over 32 billion healthcare claim records, tracking month-to-month changes from January to November 2020, compared to the same months in 2019, including overall mental health, intentional self-harm, overdoses and substance use disorders, top mental health diagnoses, and reasons for emergency room visits.

Mental health claims for those aged 13 to 18 as a percentage of all medical claims rose 97% in March and 103.5% in April 2020. In those same months, overall medical claims decreased by approximately half. The pattern of increased mental health claims and decreased medical claims continued through November 2020, FAIR Health found.

The decrease in all medical claims was likely due to widespread restrictions on nonemergency medical care imposed in spring 2020, and the continuing avoidance of such care even after restrictions were lifted in May. The one component of medical care that increased dramatically during this time period was mental health care.

In August 2020, there was a 334% spike in intentional self-harm claims among 13 to 18 year olds in the Northeast compared to August 2019. Claims for overdoses in this age group increased 94.91% as a percentage of all medical claims in March and 119.31% in April 2020 over the same months the year before.

The CDC has acknowledged a 31% increase in the proportion of mental health-related emergency room visits for 12 to 17 year olds between March and October 2020, compared to 2019. Many of the mental health problems and the suicidal behavior created by the restrictions imposed in 2020 “are likely to be present for longer and peak later than the actual pandemic,” according to David J. Gunnell, a University of Bristol suicide expert.

In an attempt to respond to the profound impact on our youth’s mental health that has resulted from school closures during the past year, state Sen. Brian Dahle has introduced Senate Bill 229, which would provide up to $500 million in funding grants to schools to provide mental health services to these students.

Each of us, as well as medical providers, parents, educators, and policy makers, must heed the critical needs of our youth, and this legislation could be a good first step.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.


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