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Preventing youth suicide: What the latest data tells us and where we go from here

We’ve come a long way, but the road is hard.

When it comes to preventing child deaths, our state has made good progress over the last 24 years. Overall the child death rate has dropped by nearly half since 1991. 

As a state we’ve prevented an estimated 15,000 deaths in one generation by following the recommendations of a special legislative study committee—the Child Fatality Task Force—that was established to investigate the problems that cause child deaths and recommend ways to fix them. The Task Force is made up of health and children’s advocates, agency professionals, law enforcement officials and lawmakers.

While we should (and do) celebrate the Task Force’s work, it is sobering that we’ve recently seen an increase in the number of youth suicides, to 46 children last year, significantly higher than the 10-year average of 30 children per year. Between 2013 and 2014 youth suicide in North Carolina increased by 35 percent. (The Associated Press did a solid report on the recent findings.) We need to be paying attention to this data and what it is telling us. 

We can make a difference.

Youth suicides are devastating. The impact on families and communities is deep and long lasting, and our hearts break every time we hear of a child who dies by suicide. But it is a preventable tragedy, and I believe we can take positive steps on this issue as a state. 

In my work with NC Child, I’ve been involved with the Child Fatality Task Force as co-chair of its Intentional Death Prevention Committee along with my colleague Dr. Elaine Cabinum-Foeller, a pediatrician with the School of Medicine at East Carolina University. In our work with the Task Force, we have seen state and local governments, nonprofits, and medical and educational systems working together to make sure more children are protected from preventable accidents and adversity, so I know we can make an impact when we use data and enact evidence-based policy solutions.

The Task Force has already been at work on the issue of youth suicide, by recognizing the important work of creating North Carolina’s suicide prevention plan. Developed by the Gillings Global School of Public Health, the Division of Mental Health, and Division of Public Health, the plan was released earlier this year. It lays out a roadmap to coordinate suicide prevention efforts statewide and provide easy access for the public to learn about warning signs and resources. In addition, a youth-oriented website has been created, It’s OK to Ask.

In the coming months, the Task Force’s Intentional Death Prevention committee is going to delve deeper into the state’s suicide prevention plan, exploring strategies such as access to mental health services, training for teachers, counselors and coaches, access to lethal means, and cultural factors that may be at work. We will make recommendations to the General Assembly when it reconvenes in April.

We have to talk.

It comes through over and over in this work that multiple issues are playing out for children at risk of killing themselves. Their brains are still developing, so life can seem very overwhelming, even when things look good on the outside. It can be hard to fathom, but so many of our children may be struggling with high levels of anxiety, mental health issues, bullying, and negative family situations. 

The young people who are most at risk for suicide, age 15-17, sometimes seem almost grown. And they are. But we can’t forget they’re still kids, with brains that won’t be fully capably of processing complex emotional information for a few more years. We need to acknowledge this, and talk about what we – as parents, family, friends, neighbors, and community members – can do to help them transition through the difficult years of adolescence and into young adulthood.

And it’s not just parents and children who need to keep talking. Our state’s leaders—Governor McCrory, his cabinet officials, and state legislators—should consider policy interventions that can prevent youth suicide. A good place to start is by listening to the recommendations of the Child Fatality Task Force in the 2016 legislative session.  

Helping our youth survive and thrive through high school and college is a parenting challenge, and a societal challenge, that is worthy of all our best grown-up efforts.  

Michelle Hughes

Michelle Hughes is the executive director of NC Child and has worked in the field of children’s advocacy for almost 20 years in North Carolina.