10% of NC high school students attempted suicide in 2021, according to new report

N.C. youth suicide and self-harm rates have jumped in recent years.

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  • In 2020, an unprecedented 67 children ages 0-18 died by suicide in North Carolina.
  • One in five North Carolina high school students reported seriously considering attempting suicide in 2021, up from 16% in 2017.
  • In 2020, more than one in 10 children ages 3-17 in North Carolina had a diagnosis of depression or anxiety in 2020 - a 49% increase from 2016.

According to stats from a new initiative from UNC-Chapel Hill, more than one in ten high school students in North Carolina attempted suicide in 2021, with even higher rates for students who identified as female (23%), black (14%), and LGBTQ+ (22%).

The numbers come from the 2023 Child Health Report Card, part of the newest initiative entitled “Our State, Our Wellbeing: Preventing Suicides in North Carolina.” This initiative comes from a partnership between Across Carolina 100 and the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute.

Across Carolina 100 is a research organization aimed at helping every one of NC’s 100 counties overcome post-pandemic problems — including mental health. It is a five-year initiative started by UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and housed at UNC School of Government’s ncIMPACT Initiative. 

The UNC Suicide Prevention Institute (SPI) is an organization started just one year ago thanks to the $25 million philanthropic donation from UNC alumni William ‘75 and his wife Dana Starling after losing both of their adult sons. Since then, according to UNC, the program has focused on three primary components: “causation and neurobiology, implementation of clinical prevention, and outreach, community engagement and dissemination.” They are also the primary organization leading the “Our State, Our Wellbeing” project. 

In 2021 alone, 1,448 North Carolinians lost their lives to suicide. Between 2004 and 2020, the total number of suicides increased by more than 40% and the rate per 100,000 residents jumped more than 10%.

The same study also noted that rural residents were 1.2 times more likely to commit suicide compared to urban residents (17.3 per 100,000 residents compared to 14.6 in urban communities). Veterans, on the other hand, are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide compared to non-veterans and account for nearly 20% of all suicide deaths in the state between 2015 and 2019.

Researching solutions for the future

The “Our State, Our Wellbeing” is a 12-month program meant to support community collaboratives trying to identify and implement strategies to improve mental health with the goal of reducing suicides.

The program is seeking applications from local entities like school systems, nonprofits, and healthcare providers to provide communities with a variety of resources meant to curb suicide. 

On its website, the program promises participating communities the resources, expert and peer support, and community toolkit of “or coordinating programs, services, and systems” needed to address suicide. 

Only 10 to 12 communities will be selected, however. As part of the search process, individuals from different sectors will be prioritized as well as communities that demonstrate commitment “through at least three letters of support from different sector partners.” Prior experience and geographical diversity will also be considered.

Dr. Patrick Sullivan, Yeargan Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Genetics, leads SPI. He says the goal is to prevent suicide on multiple levels.

“There’s no single solution to this because suicide itself of course is extremely complicated,” he added.

In order to find novel solutions to the problem of suicide, Sullivan told Carolina Journal that ISP is focusing on places where the levels of suicidality are historically high right now and trying to learn strategies from those places to improve prevention.

“Death by suicide rates across North Carolina are actually approximately comparable,” said Sullivan. “There are some places where it’s certainly higher, [and] there are some places that are certainly lower. But none are a world apart.”

Although the statistics show certain groups being more impacted than others, Sullivan said North Carolina’s diversity means, “this is a problem that affects us all.” In one area high school students may be the ones at higher risk while other areas may have a higher veteran population which is at risk.  

“Intentions and ideas have to follow that so what we are hoping to do is to serve, work, and partner with people in local communities to try to come up with effective strategies, and help them put together in a localized sustainable way,” he said.