Suicides among youth, adults not up in Nevada during pandemic

Self-inflicted deaths inserted into debate on school reopening

By: - November 18, 2020 5:25 am
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When Clark County School Superintendent Jesus Jara argued in a Las Vegas Review-Journal op-ed for reopening schools closed because of COVID, he cited 11 student suicides this school year and noted one student committed suicide in 2019, before the pandemic. 

When questioned by the Current, CCSD issued a statement attributing Jara’s incorrect comment to a “statistical error.” 

“For the entire 2019-20 school year, there were less than 10 suicides districtwide,” the correction said.

Nevada’s children are killing themselves at a rate higher than youth in any other state in the nation. But it’s likely not the pandemic that’s to blame. 

Before anyone heard of COVID, suicide took the lives of more 12- to 19-year-olds in the state than any other cause of death. In 2018, 41 Nevada youth took their own lives, according to annual data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control. That’s 5.4 per 100,000, above the national average.

Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death among children, outranked only by accidents.

It’s also the second leading cause for Nevadans age 20 to 44 and for seniors, according to the state’s Suicide Prevention office.

Of the 14 Southern Nevada youth to take their own lives this year, at least eight committed suicide since September, just weeks into the beginning of a school year like no other. The most recent child to take his own life was 9 years old. 

2020 is an average year in terms of youth suicides in Clark County, which range the last five years from a low of 10 in 2019 to a high of 20 the previous year.

But eight student suicides since the beginning of the school year is causing alarm among educators and parents, and fueling a debate about reopening schools.  

 “We are being challenged with a mental health crisis,” Superintendent Jara said at a media briefing last week.  

Jara says he fears isolation of students is to blame, though he admits he “can’t say it’s the only factor…” 

Jara says the district has identified 11 schools “where we’re seeing there’s greater need of support.” He did not identify those schools.

“It’s COVID-19 when you look at it,” Jara said. “When you look at the social isolation, when you look at what’s happening in the economy and home there’s a lot of factors and kids not being in school. We’re trying to bring some normalcy into our kids lives.”

The Washoe County Coroner reports four youth suicides between January and July of this year.  Washoe suffered six youth suicides in 2019 and four in 2018.  

Dubious distinction

Nevada, historically a staple among the 10 states with the highest suicide rate, dropped out of the top 10 the last two years, garnering the 11th spot in 2019.  The state’s suicide dashboard does not include data for last year.  

Source: Clark County Coroner

So far this year, Clark County, which has had 337 adult suicides, is on track for the lowest number in five years. 

The specter of suicide as a side-effect of the pandemic gained traction in late March when President Donald Trump predicted “tremendous death” and “suicide by the thousands” if America wasn’t open for business.  

However, the British Medical Journal reports evidence gleaned from epidemics indicates “a short term decrease in suicide can occur initially—possibly linked to a ‘honeymoon period’ or ‘pulling together’ phenomenon.

Amid the uncertainty, risk factors posed by the pandemic are real. 

  • Economic downturns are associated with higher rates of suicide, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The British Medical Journal reports high income countries are showing no rise in suicide rates.
  • Social isolation, a key strategy in fighting the coronavirus, can fuel suicidal ideation, says JAMA. 
  • The ability to attend worship services, a practice that appears to drastically reduce the risk of suicide, has been curtailed during the pandemic.    
  • In-person counseling and other mental health services available to adults and children have been curtailed, exacerbating barriers to already-strained mental health services.  Nevada has a poor record of providing mental health treatment or counseling within 12 months to those who need it, according to the Children’s Advocacy Alliance annual report card.  
  • Firearm sales have increased during the pandemic, especially among first-time owners.  Gunshot is the most common method of suicide. Owning or having access to a gun is a risk factor for suicide, says JAMA.   
  • News reports of crowded emergency rooms and hospitals increase apprehension about seeking help for health issues, which are associated with suicide in seniors. 
  • Wall-to-wall media coverage of the pandemic could increase anxiety for those with mental health problems, according to JAMA.  

But is COVID-19 to blame for spikes in suicide such as the one among Clark County students, or, as is the case with housing, health care, the justice system, and the labor market, has the pandemic merely exposed long standing frailties in addressing mental health? 

“It’s hard to say,” says family therapist Dr. Sheldon Jacobs. “It seems to be COVID, based upon the prolonged isolation that’s come from the pandemic.”

“I think the duration has had an impact. I’m basing it off students I see in the community and parents I talk to,” he says. 

The effect is more pronounced on children who had existing mental health issues before the pandemic.  

“The kids I work with professionally are struggling. They don’t have the same interactions with peers. They’re no longer playing sports,” he says. 

Jacobs says parents “are struggling with the fact they don’t have an outlet. They aren’t working. They’re home 24/7. That’s tough for any parent.”

“Kids are getting tired of siblings and fighting more. Even kids who didn’t have issues are starting to develop mental health concerns based on the unknown and the uncertainty of their parents having job loss.” says Jacobs, who calls this “a very interesting time. When parents have stress, it’s often transmitted to the children.”

The state’s Child Death Review Board is charged with conducting “comprehensive reviews of child death cases in order to better understand how and why children die in Nevada” and the purpose of the program is “prevention, education and case analysis to determine needed policy, protocol and statute changes.”   

The Board only reviews the deaths of youth from families who have a history with Child Protective Services.  So far this year, the family of one child suicide victim had previous involvement with CPS, meaning 13 youth suicides will not be reviewed by the Board. 

The vast majority of suicides – about 70 percent according to experts — are committed with firearms. 

Some experts suggest consistent prosecution of gun owners (including grieving parents) who fail to secure their weapons would drastically reduce access to weapons, and potentially suicides.

Of the 14 youth suicides in Clark County this year, seven involved guns, according to District Attorney Steve Wolfson. 

Wolfson says of those, charges were filed against responsible adults in three cases and he declined to pursue charges in one. He says three cases are “pending information from law enforcement.” 

(The national suicide hotline number is 800-273-8255. Clark County’s is 702-731-2990. There’s also the Children’s Mobile Crisis Response Team, 702-486-7865)

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.