Health Care

Kansas youth suicide increased by 50 percent in one year, report says

Kansas youth suicide rose by more than 50 percent in a single year, according to new statistics released Wednesday.

The number of youth suicides was 32 in 2017, compared with 20 the year before, the new data shows. The Kansas State Child Death Review Board, which released the information, found the state had a youth suicide rate of 4.5 per 100,000 people in 2017 – continuing an upward trend over the past decade. The board reviews deaths of children from birth through 17 years.

The sharp rise in the number of deaths comes amid a growing urgency among Kansas officials to combat youth suicide. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill creating a youth suicide prevention coordinator to spearhead efforts to address the problem.

“Every time a child takes his or her own life it is heartbreaking, and this report underscores the need to collectively address the pain Kansas youth, families and communities are feeling,” the coordinator, Gina Meier-Hummel, said in a statement. “I take this responsibility very seriously and am encouraged by the early response from statewide partners about working together, streamlining our efforts and strengthening our overall response to youth suicide in Kansas.”

Meier-Hummel, who led the Kansas Department for Children and Families under Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer, was appointed coordinator by Attorney General Derek Schmidt. On Wednesday, Schmidt called the continued rise in youth suicide alarming and praised lawmakers for creating the coordinator position.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Kansans ages 15 to 24 and the third leading cause of death for Kansans ages 5 to 14, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Overall, suicides increased by 6.3 percent in 2017, according to KDHE, rising from 512 in 2016 to 544 in 2017.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last year that the suicide rate in Kansas increased 45 percent between 1999 and 2016. That increase far outpaced the nation as a whole.

Several state agencies and the attorney general’s office have produced educational materials on youth suicide in recent weeks. The materials encourage teens to let their friends know that getting help is OK and ask parents to listen to their children without judgment, in addition to other tips.

“Every one of us has a role to play, whether you’re a friend, parent, community member or school employee. We need to come together to help our youth,” KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said earlier this month.

Despite the rise in suicide, the Child Death Review Board found that the overall child death rate in Kansas remains near a record low. Kansas had 396 child fatalities in 2017 compared with 394 in both 2016 and 2015.

“While it is promising to see that the overall death rates are decreasing for Kansas children, the number of youth suicides remain a concern,” Sara Hortenstine, the board’s executive director, said in a statement.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.