Youth Suicide Rates in U.S. Linked to Shortages of Mental Healthcare Workers at County Level

November 21, 2022

Results relevant to development of policy and interventions to reduce youth suicide

Youth suicide rate increased as county levels of mental health professional shortages increased, after adjusting for county demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, according to the first national study to assess this association. The association remained significant for youth suicides by firearms. Findings were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

“Our results underscore the critical need to expand the mental health professional workforce in counties across the country,” said lead author Jennifer Hoffmann, MD, MS, Emergency Medicine physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “In addition, policies that restrict firearm access to young people may be considered as a suicide prevention strategy.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among U.S. adolescents, with rates rising over the last decade. Disparities exist by area geography, with higher suicide rates in rural and high poverty areas of the U.S., where mental health professionals are scarce. Mental health problems are among the most common precipitating factors for youth suicide. Up to one in five children in the U.S. has a mental health condition, but only about half of children who need mental health care receive it.

Dr. Hoffmann and colleagues evaluated 5,034 suicides by youth aged 5-19 years that occurred from 2015 to 2016. Of 3,133 U.S. counties, more than two-thirds were designated as mental health workforce shortage areas.

“Mental health workforce capacity can be increased through integration of mental health care into primary care settings and schools, and through expansion of telehealth services,” said Dr. Hoffmann, who also is the Children's Research Fund Junior Board Research Scholar. “Improving reimbursement rates for mental health services may further aid in recruitment and retention of mental health professionals, and hopefully reduce suicide rates among young people.”

Research at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is conducted through Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report. It is the pediatric training ground for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Emergency medicine-focused research at Lurie Children’s is conducted through the Grainger Research Program in Pediatric Emergency Medicine.