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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, cost of zyban with insurance 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 JAMA Pediatrics, 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.

Data Support the Need for Early Intervention

“It was very important to conduct this study at this time because mental health problems, to include suicidal ideation, continue to increase in adolescents,” Peter L. Loper Jr., MD, of the University of South Carolina, Columbia, said in an interview. “This study reinforces the immense import of sufficient mental health workforce to mitigate this increasing risk of suicide in adolescents.”

Loper said: “I believe that early intervention, or consistent access to mental health services, can go a very long way in preventing suicide in adolescents.

“I think the primary implications of this study are more relevant at the systems level, and reinforce the necessity of clinicians advocating for policies that address mental health workforce shortages in counties that are underserved,” he added.

However, “One primary barrier to increasing the number of mental health professionals at a local level, and specifically the number of child psychiatrists, is that demand is currently outpacing supply,” said Loper, a pediatrician and psychiatrist who was not involved in the study. “As the study authors cite, increasing telepsychiatry services and increasing mental health workforce specifically in the primary care setting may help offset these deficiencies,” he noted. Looking ahead, primary prevention of mental health problems by grassroots efforts is vital to stopping the trend in increased youth suicides and more mental health professionals are needed to mitigate the phenomenon of isolation and the degradation of community constructs.

As for additional research, Loper agreed with the study authors comments on the need for “more granular data” to better understand the correlation between mental health workforce and suicide in adolescents. “Data that captures city or neighborhood statistics related to mental health workforce and adolescent suicide could go a long way in our efforts to continue to better understand this very important correlation.”

The study was supported by an Academic Pediatric Association Young Investigator Award. Hoffmann disclosed research funding from the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality unrelated to the current study. Loper had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This story originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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