Government researchers underscored Thursday what Long Island mental health experts have seen up close for years: More young people than ever, those ages 10 to 24, have been taking their own lives.
Nationwide, deaths by suicide among young people increased by 62% from 2007 through 2021, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate has spiked among those ages 20 to 24 since the pandemic but had been trending upward overall since the early to mid 2000s.
In 2021, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for people between 10 and 24, while homicide was the third leading cause, the study found.
Health experts on Long Island said the findings point to a long-standing mental health crisis among the young, likely charged by the pandemic and the soaring popularity of social media.
“A lot of that is attributable to the disruptions caused by COVID and the fact that we were all too happy to proclaim the pandemic over without fully appreciating the long-term consequences, particularly for kids," said Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of Garden City-based Family and Children’s Association, a nonprofit that includes services such as a youth mental health program.
"There's no vaccine for anxiety or depression," Reynolds added, "and while there are well worn strategies for care, mental health services remain out of reach for too many.”
Even before the pandemic, suicide among youth had been a growing concern.
From 2001 through 2007, the suicide rate for youth between 10 to 14 declined. But it tripled from 2007 to 2018, moving from 0.9 deaths per 100,000 to 2.9, the CDC said.
For those aged 15 through 19, the suicide rate showed no significant changes between 2001 and 2009. From 2009 to 2017, according to the study, it increased 57%. It didn’t significantly change from 2017 to 2021, the study said.
The rate for people between 20 and 24 who died by suicide increased 63% between 2007 and 2021. according to the CDC.
Colleen Merlo, chief executive of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness in Ronkonkoma, said social media can't fill the void of in-person connections.
“We think a young person, because they’re posting pictures and they look like they’re really outgoing and having fun and smiling, that they are doing OK,” she said. “And we are missing the fact that behind those pictures, they're in a lot of pain, and have a lot of self-esteem issues.”
Wilfred Farquharson IV, a licensed psychologist and director of the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Ambulatory Services at Stony Brook Medicine, said normalizing mental health care and public health education is vital.
Young people sometimes show symptoms of distress before they begin to think about suicide, Farquharson said. They need to be able to reach out to teachers, clergy or other people to point them in the right direction.
The numbers outlined in the report offer "an opportunity to start talking with young people of all levels and all ages, about mental health, about emotions, about behaviors, about noticing that there's a variety of outlets."
Anyone in need can call 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.