The suicide of 9-year-old James Myles last year in Colorado helped draw attention to the growing public health crisis of youth suicides in the U.S., where the suicide rate in general has risen 25 percent since 1999. That focus is a good thing. Middle-schoolers are now as likely to die from suicide as they are from traffic accidents, often because of bullying, the cause of James’s self-inflicted death.
The facts are startling. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every day, on average, more than 3,000 attempts are made by young people to take their own lives. The suicide rate for white children and teens between the ages of 10 and 17 shot up 70 percent in the decade between 2006 and 2016, and although black children and teens kill themselves less often than white youths, the rate of increase was 77 percent.
Although suicide affects all youths, some groups are at higher risk. Boys are more likely than girls to die from suicide, while girls are more likely to report attempting suicide than boys. Native American youths have the highest rates of suicide-related fatalities while Hispanic youths report attempting suicide more often than black and white, non-Hispanic peers. Children as young as 5 have been found to have suicidal thoughts.
Experts and teens cite many reasons for the increase in youth suicide. Poor mental health screening and inadequate access to mental health services are a big part of the problem. Young men and people of color find it difficult to admit they are struggling or seek care. Opioid addiction among parents and youths, and a hopelessness born of poverty, has added dramatically to the situation. Then there’s bullying, unrelenting advertising about weight and beauty, and shared angst on social media.
Pediatricians and parents need to be more tuned into signs of suicidal ideation, but beyond that, insurance should cover mental health needs at least on par with physical health. Primary care clinic staff should include psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, as the Affordable Care Act promoted. And the Medicaid CHIP program that covers child health must remain in place and offer larger reimbursements to providers.
I know how devastating youth suicide is. I lost a nephew to it, and nearly a niece.
I also lost several colleagues to a devastating sexually transmitted disease in the early days of HIV/AIDS.
A wide range of STDs, which reached an all-time high in the U.S. in 2017, are on the rise. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are among the STDs affecting certain high-risk populations, including women, infants and gay or bisexual men.
According to the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors in a CBS News report, “The United States continues to have the highest STD rates in the industrialized world. We are in the midst of an absolute STD public health crisis … that’s been in the making for years.”
One of many growing concerns is that gonorrhea could become resistant to current antibiotics used to treat it, according to the CDC. When left untreated, STDs can affect fertility, cause stillbirths and lead to chronic pain. Reasons for the uptick in STD rates include insufficient screening and testing (such as offered at Planned Parenthood), a lack of appropriate sex education and insufficient federal funding. Risky sex, often associated with opioid use/addiction, is contributing to high-risk sexual behavior. In recent years, changes in transmission patterns due to condom-less sex has been documented, making new populations vulnerable.
Noting failures in our public health system, Dr. Gail Bolan, of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, wrote in a 2017 report, “The resurgence of syphilis, and particularly congenital syphilis, is not an arbitrary event, but rather a symptom of a deteriorating public health infrastructure and lack of access to health care.”
In order to stop the rising STD rates, the CDC has recommended state and local health departments focus on prevention and treatment, doctors make STD screening and treatment standard in their practices, and health education efforts help people talk about STDs, get tested regularly and use condoms to avoid risky sex.
All that is well and good, but it rests on the political will to do what is necessary for the health and safety of all of us, perhaps especially the most vulnerable, including our youth. The current administration has demonstrated loud and clear — through deep cuts within the health sector, snubbing its nose at science, and generally taking a “Let them eat cake” attitude — that it could care less.
Until we have new, more enlightened and compassionate leaders, funds for research, sex education and affordable, available clinical programs are likely to elude us. In the meantime, the youth suicide rate and the increased rates of STDs are likely to keep going up. That’s a travesty that speaks volumes about our national priorities. We desperately need to change that.