Thirty-two Kansas children died by suicide in 2017, the most recent year numbers are available. This is a 50% increase over the prior year and double the number who took their own lives a decade ago.
These deaths are tragic and this trend alarming.
In response, the Kansas attorney general and the Tower Mental Health Foundation last year formed the Kansas Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force. I volunteered as its co-chairwoman.
Our task force spent a year holding field hearings across Kansas and in January issued a report with recommendations to improve youth suicide prevention. The distressing 2017 youth suicide numbers, released last month, demonstrate the importance of continuing to implement our recommendations.
To its credit, the Legislature already has begun. HB 2290, enacted this year, established the Youth Suicide Prevention Coordinator, a role former DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummell assumed in August. Creating a position dedicated to coordinating efforts, identifying steps forward, and implementing our recommendations was an important first step.
This legislation also requires implementation of our task force recommendation to create an updated suicide hotline and school violence reporting system in the form of a smartphone and Internet app. According to the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens use a smartphone, and 45% say they are online “almost constantly.” It is important to reach kids where they are, and traditional voice telephone calls or in-person conversations are not how our kids communicate.
Our task force specifically recommended:
1) There should be one uniform, statewide app because kids move.
2) The app’s first-line responders should be licensed mental health professionals rather than law enforcement officers. The operation of this online hotline will require ongoing funding, which will be a worthwhile investment as shown by positive results in other states.
Another needed step is to make access to mental health services faster, more seamless and less burdensome for families. Mental health services should not be treated like piano lessons — an hour a week off-campus known only to a parent and the pianist. We need to identify struggling kids sooner and include teachers and others in their daily world to help. Two years ago, the Legislature created a pilot program that expanded the partnership between community health centers and school districts. Having dedicated mental health services available in schools where our kids spend their days makes help more accessible, reduces stigma and is less disruptive to students, parents and teachers.
Last August, House Speaker Ron Ryckman (R-Olathe) called for expanding this pilot program statewide. He is correct. The Legislature should do so this year.
Finally, we need to move our efforts upstream. It is not enough to prevent youth suicide; we must improve childhood so our kids never seriously contemplate suicide. To that end, the commissioner of education has formed a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Bullying. Its recommendations are due in December. In the same vein, family discord was cited as a contributing factor in 28 of the 32 youth suicides in 2017. Knowing this, if a family you know is struggling, be the caring adult who reaches out to make sure that the kids are OK.
Pay attention to the kids around you. We can all — neighbors, coaches, teachers, pastors — be part of a kid’s family.
The bad news is youth suicide is a significant problem in Kansas as in every other state. As opined in these pages in September, more must be done. The good news is efforts are underway to help our kids to live and to live better. We have some solid recommendations and next steps that can and should be supported and implemented.
Jennifer Schmidt is a clinical associate professor of law at KU. She is married to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.