A lack of mental health providers, especially in poverty-stricken areas, can lead to a higher adolescent suicide rate.
Shortages in mental health providers correlates to higher suicide rates among U.S. youth, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The findings compound the already alarming statistics on youth suicide, the second leading cause of death among adolescents in the United States.
The study, the first of its kind, was led by Dr. Jennifer Hoffmann of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Hoffmann and her colleagues looked at youth suicide rates at the county level, stating in their report that the association between youth suicide and mental health workforce shortages while evident, “is not well understood.” What is better understood, mental health experts say, is that in both suicidal adults and children, mental illness — especially depression — is often a factor.
One in five children in the United States has a mental health condition, but only about half of those in need receive mental health care, according to statistics cited by the researchers. Their study sought to answer this question: “Are youth suicide rates associated with county mental health professional workforce shortages, after adjusting for county demographic and socioeconomic characteristics?”
Hoffman and her colleagues found that youth suicides increased where shortages among mental health professionals were higher. The researchers looked at 5,034 suicides among youth aged 5-19 in 3,133 counties across the United States, adjusting for demographics and socioeconomic factors. The majority of suicides were among boys, and most of the counties in the study (67.6%) had shortages of mental health professionals. The study revealed both increased suicide rates in those counties and overall increased firearm suicide rates among youths.
“Our results underscore the critical need to expand the mental health professional workforce in counties across the country,” Hoffmann said. “In addition, policies that restrict firearm access to young people may be considered as a suicide prevention strategy.”
To achieve their findings, researchers used a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) score (0–25) for mental health services in each county, which is assigned by the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration. For every one-point increase in that score, the adjusted youth suicide rate increased 4%, the study revealed. Suicide rates are higher in high poverty and rural areas, which typically have fewer mental health resources available or people who cannot afford care.
Researchers said that their findings could “inform” efforts to prevent suicides among youth in the United States, which have increased in recent years. Among the actions that could be taken: integrating mental health access into primary care and school settings, and making telehealth services more accessible. Other steps could include further limiting youth access to firearms, and improving reimbursement rates for mental health services, Hoffmann said.
The offers help on recognizing the warning signs of children and teens who may be considering suicide. Some common risk factors include depression, bullying, and withdrawal from friends, family and activities. Those who are able to seek mental health help can work with licensed professionals to work through feelings of depression and hopelessness. However, if resources are not available, adolescents can feel isolated and alone.