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Youth suicide rates increasing in Rochester, nationwide

A study published Tuesday in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, finds an acceleration in youth suicide rates.
JAMA; Oren Miron
A study published Tuesday in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, finds an acceleration in youth suicide rates.

A study published this week finds suicide rates among teens and young adults are accelerating across the country, and local clinicians say the Rochester area is no exception.

The study, published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, found near-constant increases in suicide rates among people aged 15 to 24 over the last decade.

Michael Scharf, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said the national trend revealed by the study matches what he sees locally: Suicide rates among youths in Monroe County are climbing.

Suicides among people younger than 18 in Monroe County had been steady at about two per year, he said.

“And then, in the last three years, we see it increase, to an almost tripling,” Scharf said.

Even that could be an undercount. The study's authors write that their data relies on accurate cause-of-death reporting by local officials. But "if a suicide using opioids was mistaken for an accidental overdose," for example, they would miss that data point.

Misreporting opioid overdoses as accidental when they were actually intentional is likely a problem locally, too, according to WXXI reporting last year.

Scharf said that while scientists know that suicide attempts are becoming more common, they’re not entirely sure why -- although he acknowledged that an increase in screen time and a decrease in exercise seem to be correlating with the trend.

Studying these developments among teenagers and young adults is especially important, said Scharf.

“That’s when we see this dramatic increase in suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior. That’s when we see the increase happen,” he said. “The hope is that this is the time to recognize risks and intervene.”

But he said the increase in young people in the Rochester area who need treatment for suicidal risks has been so profound that treatment facilities are running out of space.

“As I’m talking to you on the phone,” Scharf said in an interview Tuesday, “there’s six kids in our emergency department who’ve been evaluated and determined to need admission, and our unit’s full.”

That’s in spite of a recent expansion in URMC’s child and adolescent inpatient psychiatric treatment unit. “We are operating over capacity, that’s safe to say,” said Scharf.

Still, there are places to turn for help. Family and friends can offer support; primary care doctors can make referrals; and hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the local 211 crisis line can answer calls.

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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