Well-Being Mental Health

Mental health care provider shortage linked with increased youth suicide rates: study

Of the more than 3,000 counties included in the analysis, over two-thirds had shortages of mental health care providers.
doctors' coats
The Associated Press/ Evan Vucci

Story at a glance

  • American youth are facing high rates of mental illness and suicide. 

  •  New data underscore how shortages of mental health care providers exacerbate the crisis. 

  • Integrating mental health care into schools and increasing the use of telehealth could help meet this challenge, researchers say.

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Increased suicide rates among youths between ages 5 and 19 have coincided with growing shortages of mental health care providers at the county level, according to the results of a new study. 

Findings were published in JAMA Pediatrics and reflect data from 2015 and 2016. However, national data show more than 157 million Americans currently live in an area with a shortage of mental health care professionals. 

A total of 5,034 youth died by suicide within the study window, the majority of whom were male and white. Before adjusting for confounding factors, researchers found counties with provider shortages had a 41 percent higher youth suicide rate, at 5.09 deaths per 100,000 youths, compared with 3.62 deaths per 100,000 in areas without shortages. 

However, youth suicides are more common in rural areas and in those with higher poverty levels. After adjusting for these variables, data showed living in a county with a mental health provider shortage was linked with a 16 percent higher youth suicide rate.

The shortages were also linked to increased youth firearm suicide rates. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among U.S. youth, while studies have shown having access to a firearm drastically increases the risk of death by suicide. 

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“Our results underscore the critical need to expand the mental health professional workforce in counties across the country,” said study author Jennifer Hoffmann of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in a release.

“In addition, policies that restrict firearm access to young people may be considered as a suicide prevention strategy.” 

Rates of suicides have risen over the last decade, while mental health problems are one of the most common factors preceding youth suicide. It’s estimated around half of adolescents have had a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. However, youth suicides carried out via firearm are less likely to be preceded by a diagnosed mental illness.  

Of the 3,133 counties included in the study, more than two-thirds had shortages of mental health care providers. These counties were more likely to have more uninsured children, lower educational attainment, higher unemployment and poverty, and were more often rural. 

“While this study involved data collected prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, several studies suggest declining youth mental health, which is likely to exacerbate mental health workforce shortages even further,” authors wrote.

Workforce development programs, integration of mental health care into primary care and schools and increased utilization of telehealth could help meet the care challenges outlined.

Updated at 11 a.m.