Suicide, mental health issues are major factors in the rise of youth deaths

New research shows child and adolescent death rates rose by 20% in the United States between 2019 and 2021.
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 1:24 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - New research shows child and adolescent death rates rose by 20% in the United States between 2019 and 2021. That’s the most significant increase in decades.

The number of youth dying in Virginia has been growing for even longer.

Thanks to breakthroughs in science, we’ve seen fewer premature births over the past several decades. We’ve also seen a drop in pediatric cancer deaths and reduced congenital disabilities leading to death.

However, in this most recent report, we’re seeing a dramatic and devastating jump in childhood mortality, and experts are warning us to pay attention.

The group studying the information follows death certificates to determine how children die.

Stephen Wolfe, the director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at VCU, says we can attribute this 20% increase in pediatric deaths to four primary categories: homicides, suicides, drug overdoses, and car accidents.

“And those four categories are so massive at this point that they are now offsetting all lives, all lives saved in children by those medical advances,” Wolfe said.

New research shows child and adolescent death rates rose by 20% in the United States between 2019 and 2021.

Wolfe says there’s been a dramatic increase in homicides among teenagers and that the death rates are higher among Black youth and low-income communities.

He says those who choose to have guns should pay attention to how they store them at home. He says to keep them locked away and unloaded.

“But it’s important to emphasize that most of the gun deaths that we’re talking about at the population are not occurring at mass shootings. They are occurring one at a time every day in towns and cities across our country,” Wolfe said.

Suicide and mental health concerns also contribute to the rise in youth deaths.

Experts say that while COVID-19 contributed to the issues, these problems started well before the virus.

“We’re talking 15, 16 years of increasing death rates from suicides really speaks to a mental health crisis in the need for parents, teachers and others who are dealing with children to have a heightened awareness of how they’re doing in terms of coping with psychological stresses, depression, and some of the other difficulties that lead children to feelings of hopelessness,” Wolfe said.

Researchers found that suicide rates at ages 10 to 19 began increasing in 2007 and climbed by 70% by 2019.

There is a severe shortage of mental health providers who care for kids, especially in rural areas.

Suicide rates are also increasing across all racial and ethnic groups, with Black youth experiencing the most dramatic increase in deaths from suicides.

Wolfe says this is likely a reflection and consequence of the social and health policies that have marginalized people of color for generations.

“So our children are now less likely to reach adulthood than they were even a year or two ago. So when we get to the point where we’re losing our children, our most cherished population, we really need to get very serious and intentional about pursuing policies to save their lives,” Wolfe said.

Opioids have been on the country’s radar for some time, but they may not have been on your radar for your teenager. Wolfe says this data shows that it should be, as it is one of the leading causes of pediatric deaths.

“Initially, it was affecting middle-aged adults the most, then young adults,” Wolfe said. “What our data are showing now is it’s reaching down into teenagers, and most of these overdose deaths that are occurring among teenagers involve synthetic opioids like fentanyl.”

Wolfe says teens are getting these drugs the same way adults do.

“And there are a number of factors that are creating the kind of psychological distress that makes young people more vulnerable to using these drugs as a coping mechanism to dealing with the stresses in their lives,” Wolfe said.

He says parents should stay alert to warning signs and regularly check to ensure kids don’t have access to opioids at home or other places the children spend time.

“That turns out to be a big challenge are mental health and substance abuse services are inadequate in this country and in many of our cities like Richmond,” Wolfe said. “And we really have to do more to provide access to those services for young people where shortages in providers are even greater.”

Car accidents are a little bit more challenging to figure out. Car deaths decreased before the pandemic, but then experts saw a sharp increase.

There was also increased use of alcohol and alcohol abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have contributed to these increased deaths,” Wolfe said. “Cell phone distraction and other variables like that have been on the rise, so we need to do more research to understand what was behind that increase in car accident deaths and increase law enforcement to ensure compliance with speed limits and other driving safety practices.

Wolfe says their research will continue, working to find data that helps us figure out how to keep kids safer and alive—researching why it’s happening and what policies we’re pursuing in our country responsible for those climbing death rates.