Sep 18, 2023 - Health

Suicide prevention effort to support disproportionately impacted youth

Illustration of an emergency siren with a health symbol as the light.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced $16.3 million in new grants last week to community-led youth suicide prevention projects amid a nationwide surge in reported teen mental health issues.

Driving the news: The funding is part of a new media and outreach campaign launched by CDPH that aims to support youth disproportionately impacted by suicide, such as Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ populations.

State of play: In San Francisco, suicide is one of the five leading causes of death for residents aged 13 to 34.

What they're saying: "Folks at that age are trying to figure out who they are" while juggling academics, social dynamics and online spaces, Van Hedwall, director of programs at the phone- and text-based San Francisco Suicide Prevention (SFSP) crisis center, told Axios.

  • They also don't have fully matured frontal lobes — something that can cause moments of distress to feel much more heightened and lead to "pretty severe dysregulation," noted Hedwall. "That includes suicidal ideation."

Of note: When SFSP dispatches staff to hold educational workshops and outreach with students, messages to the SFSP-operated teen text line tend to increase, according to Hedwall.

  • SFSP also sees bumps at the beginning of the school year as students transition back to an academic schedule.

Yes, but: While SFSP employs a mix of staff and volunteers to field calls and texts, San Francisco itself doesn't have enough resources targeting prevention, Hedwall said.

  • "There's only services when kids get to that point" of crisis, he said.

Patrick Gardner, founder of mental health nonprofit Young Minds Advocacy, said via email that there is "no serious effort to ensure that counties are provided a fair (or adequate) share of state revenues" for youth services, pointing to disparities among Bay Area jurisdictions.

  • The number one reform needed is accountability around standards of youth mental health care, he added.

The big picture: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people aged 15-24 in California — a sobering statistic reflected in the Bay Area's multiple teen suicides over the last 15 years.

  • In California, young adults aged 19-24 had the largest increase in suicide rates (11.2%) from 2020 to 2021.
  • Meanwhile, Black youth had the highest suicide rate in 2021, followed by Asians and Pacific Islanders.

What to watch: Under Gov. Gavin Newsom's Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, the state plans to issue grants targeted at scaling early intervention programs and practices to improve youth access to mental health services.


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