The news is devastating, even more than a year later. From August 2017 to March 2018 — a mere seven months — a dozen teenagers from five school districts committed suicide in Stark County. The past year, the toll has climbed by four. So it follows that public health authorities, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mobilized to develop a response. Their report, released last week, found the suicide rate among young people ages 10 to 19 at more than seven times the national rate and 11 times the typical county rate.
The report included the results of a survey conducted last spring showing that out of 15,083 students, more than 5 percent reported attempting suicide at least once during the past school year — with nearly 23 percent at an elevated risk of suicide. Those are chilling numbers.
County agencies already have launched prevention initiatives, including expanded access to care for those at risk and the development of a standard screening tool. The report recommends approaches to build on those efforts, noting, in particular, that nearly 16 percent of students were not able to get mental health care when needed. The report also points to such steps as reducing access to lethal means, especially guns, and helping community members identify those at risk.
The report bolsters what John Aller, the director of Stark County Mental Health & Addiction Recovery, told Kelli Weir of the Canton Repository about the need to promote resiliency, or how to cope and solve problems. Yet this isn’t just a matter of teaching skills to overcome setbacks. The system as a whole must be resilient, especially the capacity to care immediately for teenagers and others in crisis.
Stark County cannot get there on its own. Neither can Summit or other counties. They need the help of the state.
That help has increased, for example, through the Medicaid expansion. Mike DeWine has proposed in his two-year budget plan $27 million to enhance access in a crisis, getting away from emergency rooms that may lack necessary resources to treat patients. The governor calls for an additional $10 million to support patients after a crisis, when they are looking to sustain their recovery.
All of this goes to the continuum of care advocated by the National Alliance on Mental Health Ohio. During the governor’s race last fall, the organization highlighted a handful of ideas to enhance mental health care. One focuses on the need for more hospital beds, parents today pleading with doctors to keep a son or daughter, knowing their child isn’t ready to be discharged.
A broken leg gets treated immediately. Those afflicted with a mental illness too often must wait before seeing a psychiatrist. In part, the delay reflects the lower reimbursement rates for mental health providers, resulting in fewer psychiatrists, especially for children. This isn’t the parity between mental and physical ailments the country has committed to achieve.
The state has a program, First Episode Psychosis, that reflects the importance of early intervention, the peak onset for disorders occurring from ages 15 to 25. That is the beginning. What is required is adequate care at other junctures, ready access to providers, plus sufficient support, even housing equipped with services for more severe cases.
The report from public health authorities didn’t attempt to explain why so many teenagers in Stark County have committed suicide. The crushing loss alone should be impetus enough to develop and secure ways to prevent such an episode from happening again. That is a complex undertaking. More than anything, it involves a mental health system equipped to meet the need.