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Better policy choices can address North Carolina’s rising youth suicide rate

North Carolina’s latest child health report card — released on Feb. 20 by NC Child and the North Carolina Institute of Medicine (NCIOM) — gives the state high marks for children’s health coverage, but also points out some troubling trends. The rate of youth suicide in the state has nearly doubled over the previous decade. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10-17 in North Carolina.

The 2019 North Carolina Child Health Report Card tracks key indicators of child health and well-being in four areas: Healthy Births, Access to Care, Secure Homes and Neighborhoods, and Health Risk Factors. The report provides data on such health concerns and risk factors as asthma, teen births, infant mortality, poverty, and child deaths.

Download the full report card and infographics here.

Racial disparities in children’s health

The report highlights the racial disparities in many children’s health outcomes, including suicide. For example, African-American high school students in 2017 were twice as likely as white students to have attempted suicide in the past year — and were much less likely to receive treatment for depression. New data published last week in JAMA Pediatrics ranked North Carolina last among all US states for children receiving needed mental health treatment. Nearly three out of four children in the state with a mental health diagnosis did not receive mental health treatment, according to the analysis.

“The reality is that many kids have to cope with tremendous stressors and don’t have the supports they need to navigate them,” said Michelle Hughes, executive director of NC Child. “Dealing with things like discrimination because of their race or sexual identity, or experiencing abuse and neglect, all contribute to a child’s likelihood of attempting suicide. These are all things that we can address with better public policy choices. We don’t have to accept this as a given.”

The report covers several policy recommendations to address youth suicide in North Carolina, including:

  • Reducing barriers to children and youth receiving the mental health care they need;
  • Making it harder for youth to get access to the means to harm themselves (e.g., safe storage of firearms and prescription drugs); and
  • Ensuring that caring adults in a child’s life are trained to detect and address risk factors for dying by suicide. These adults include caregivers, as well as school safety personnel such as nurses, social workers, and psychologists.

Summary of grades

Despite continued struggles in the area of child poverty, the Report Card shows progress in breastfeeding, asthma, oral health, and teen births. Below is a summary of grades in this year’s report:

A – Insurance Coverage

B – Environmental Health; Health Services Utilization & Immunization; Breastfeeding; Teen Births

C – Education; Oral Health; Preconception and Maternal Health & Support

D – Birth Outcomes; Child Abuse and Neglect; Healthy Eating and Active Living; Mental Health; Tobacco, Alcohol, and Substance Use; School Health

F – Housing and Economic Security

About the report card

For over 20 years, the North Carolina Child Health Report Card has monitored the health and safety of children and youth in our state. The report compiles the leading indicators of child health and safety to help policymakers, health professionals, the media, and concerned citizens track child health, identify emerging trends, and plan future investments. The report card presents data for the most current year available, usually 2017, and a comparison year, or benchmark, usually 2013.

Download the full report card and infographics here.

Editor’s note: This perspective was first published by NC Child. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Whitney Tucker

Tucker is the Director of Research at NC Child. She previously served as policy and research associate at the Children’s Trust of South Carolina. At the Children’s Trust, Whitney managed the data program and lead effective policy advocacy campaigns, including one to establish an EITC in South Carolina. Whitney has a special research interest in racial and ethnic equity and two-generation strategies for improving child well-being.