Staggering rates of suicide among youth in St. Louis County

According to estimates on suicide from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Data & Statistics Fatal Injury Report for 2020, approximately 1.2M Americans attempted suicide, and nearly 46,000 succumbed to suicide. Indeed, it is no consequence that suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S.

Here in St. Louis County, youth are in critical danger. Data shows roughly 20 suicide attempts per day by St. Louis County youth. Using data from the most recent Missouri Student Survey in 2022 and the Missouri KIDS COUNT, one can estimate that in the last year, 16,249 St. Louis County youth seriously thought about suicide, 11,817 made a suicide plan, and 7,386 attempted suicide.

Most recent data from 2019 evidenced that 12 youths aged 19 and younger succumbed to suicide in the St. Louis metro area (MODHSS, 2021).

The canary in the coal mine has been hospital systems in Missouri, which have heard the call for increased mental health services for years. Data compiled yearly from hospital community-based need assessment surveys, including the SSM health needs assessment for North and South St. Louis County, report that mental health services and access to care were the community’s top concerns. Indeed, all Missouri regional SSM needs assessments found mental health as a priority area. A 2019 St. Louis Children’s Hospital Needs Assessment found mental and behavioral health needs as the top concern overall. Parent focus groups reported stress and bullying as their top concerns.

While the complete mental health fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is unknown, the traumatic effects are likely to be devastating for generations.

Missouri-based hospitals, including St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Children’s Mercy Kansas City, SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, and Mercy Children’s Hospital St. Louis, issued an open letter in December 2021 declaring a “shadow pandemic.” The letter states that COVID-19 has accelerated a youth mental health crisis years in the making. These hospitals have seen a significant increase in youth presenting to emergency departments with mental health needs since the onset of the pandemic.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, findings from the 2017 Missouri Student Survey for St. Louis County suggest that anxiety was the fourth most reported problem for middle school youth across all regions. Depression was reported among 30% of youth across all regions. Surveys conducted on St. Louis County school staff found that staffers felt ill-equipped to deal with or identify students with mental health issues. School staff also felt that teacher training, clinical referrals, and parent education could be some of the most useful in-school services agencies can offer (Applied Research Collaborative, 2012).

Many evidence-based prevention and harm reduction methods and strategies will be needed to combat youth suicide. Among the many methods and strategies, recommendations include: 1) mental health literacy education, 2) advancement of social and emotional learning (SEL), 3) destigmatizing mental health services, 4) advancing gun safety laws, 5) providing advanced services to combat the impacts of isolation, hopelessness, and depression, while 6) building resilient behaviors, and 7) providing peer-t0-peer support to at-risk youth. Though this is not an exhaustive list, it does provide programmatic opportunities for organizations whose missions work to combat suicide in the St. Louis County region.

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