Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and the COVID-19 pandemic could make it worse. But preliminary statewide suicide data doesn’t show an increase during January through October this year, according to Legislative Finance Committee research.
An LFC Action Plan, released Tuesday, shows there were 515 suicides in the state last year, and the ripple effects of the pandemic “will likely exacerbate behavioral health issues and could lead to an increase in suicides.”
Preliminary data shows total suicides are about the same in the first nine months of this year and last. The report says one possible reason the suicide numbers haven’t appeared to increase is the delay in determining the cause of deaths. Another possibility is that behavioral health problems may not manifest themselves immediately after a person suffers trauma, including trauma related to the pandemic.
“From January to October 2019, there were 419 suicide deaths, while through October of 2020, the Office of the Medical Examiner categorized 407 deaths as suicides,” the report says. “However, in May 2020, there were 19 more suicides than in May 2019, and in July 2020, there were seven more suicides than in July 2019.”
Among children under 15, there were five suicide deaths from January through October in 2019, and there were seven this year in that time span, according to the report.
The analysis also points out that for young adults – age 15 to 24 – deaths by suicide increased slightly from 63 during that time period last year to 66 this year.
“While this increase is not statistically significant, it is potentially concerning as suicides in this age group also increased between 2018 and 2019, and as there is evidence of increased behavioral health needs for youth,” the report says.
Parents and educators have been particularly concerned about the well-being of school-age kids who may suffer from social isolation because in-person classes and activities have been severely disrupted by the pandemic.
Adding to the concern is New Mexico’s history of high suicide rates.
“Since 2008, suicide rates in New Mexico have averaged 50% higher than the national rate, and since 2014, suicide has accounted for 4% of all deaths of New Mexicans between ages five and 84 and is the ninth leading cause of death statewide,” the report says, adding that the most recent data for national comparison is from 2018.
Suicide accounts for 29% of deaths among 15-to-24-years-olds in the state, the analysis says. And since 2014, New Mexico has been among the top 15 states for teen suicide.
“While most suicides occur in those over 24, suicides account for a large portion of deaths for 15- to 24-year-olds, with over 10% of high school students reporting attempting suicide,” the report says.
Meanwhile, the report says, New Mexico is one of a few states that don’t have legislation mandating suicide prevention training to teach educators how to recognize warning signs.
Some of the warning signs of suicide are withdrawing, feeling isolated, talking about feeling hopeless and talking about being a burden to others, according to experts.
In addition to requiring training, the LFC suggests the state consider requiring districts to offer suicide prevention programs for middle and high school students.
The state could also make it a point to channel resources to districts that have the greatest need for behavioral health services, and districts could use earmarked funds for more mental health providers, the report says.
“Districts had unspent funds allocated to counselors, social workers, and psychologists. According to (the New Mexico Public Education Department’s) operating budget management system data for the 2019-2020 school year, districts allocated an additional $12 million for guidance counselors, social workers, counselors, and psychologists that went unspent,” the report says.
The LFC recommends the state aim to reduce suicides by 10%, or 52 deaths annually, in the next five years.