Rates of youth suicides at the county level increased as mental health professional shortages increased, based on data from more than 5,000 youth suicides across all counties in the United States.
Suicide remains the second leading cause of death among adolescents in the United States, and shortages of pediatric mental health providers are well known, but the association between mental health workforce shortages and youth suicides at the local level has not been well studied, Jennifer A. Hoffmann, MD, of Northwestern University, Chicago, and colleagues wrote.
Previous studies have shown few or no child psychiatrists or child-focused mental health professionals in most counties across the United States, and shortages are more likely in rural and high-poverty counties, the researchers noted.
In a cross-sectional study published in, the researchers reviewed all youth suicide data from January 2015 to Dec. 31, 2016 using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Compressed Mortality File. They used a multivariate binomial regression model to examine the association between youth suicide rates and the presence or absence of mental health care. Mental health care shortages were based on data from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration’s assessment of the number of mental health professionals relative to the country population and the availability of nearby services. Areas identified as having shortages were designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) and scored on a severity level of 0-25, with higher scores indicating greater shortages. Approximately two-thirds (67.6%) of the 3,133 counties included in the study met criteria for mental health workforce shortage areas.
The researchers identified 5,034 suicides in youth aged 5-19 years during the study period, for an annual rate of 3.99 per 100,000 individuals. Of these, 72.8% were male and 68.2% were non-Hispanic White.
Overall, a county designation of mental health care shortage was significantly associated with an increased rate of youth suicide (adjusted incidence rate ratio, 1.16) and also increased rate of youth firearm suicide (aIRR, 1.27) after controlling for county and socioeconomic characteristics including the presence of a children’s mental health hospital, the percentage of children without health insurance, median household income, and racial makeup of the county.
The adjusted youth suicide rate increased by 4% for every 1-point increase in the HPSA score in counties with designated mental health workforce shortages.
The adjusted youth suicide rates were higher in counties with a lower median household income, and youth suicides increased with increases in the percentages of uninsured children, the researchers wrote.
“Reducing poverty, addressing social determinants of health, and improving insurance coverage may be considered as components of a multipronged societal strategy to improve child health and reduce youth suicides,” they said. “Efforts are needed to enhance the mental health professional workforce to match current levels of need.” Possible strategies to increase the pediatric mental health workforce may include improving reimbursement and integrating mental health care into primary care and schools by expanding telehealth services.
The study findings were limited by several factors including the potential misclassification of demographics or cause of death, the researchers noted. Other limitations included the inability to assess actual use of mental health services or firearm ownership in a household, and the possible differences between county-level associations and those of a city, neighborhood, or individual.
However, the results indicate that mental health professional workforce shortages were associated with increased youth suicide rates, and the data may inform local-level suicide prevention efforts, they concluded.