Youth suicide trends offer hope
A deeper dive into the data also shows troubling developments
A portrait photograph of a school psychologist speaking with a student about his mental health

Following years of rapidly rising suicide rates among youth, many feared the widespread stress and disruption caused by the pandemic would further exacerbate the problem. But the data show a very different trend — suicide rates inexplicably fell in 2020 for California youth ages 15 to 24 for the first time in years.

At the same time, however, the number of suicides among children ages 5 to 14 doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 27 to 54, according to the latest release from Kidsdata, a program of the Population Reference Bureau. This is more in line with what experts expected. According to a June 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health-related emergency department visits in the United States for those ages 12-17 increased 31 percent from 2019 to 2020. Emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts started to increase in the age group in May 2020.

“There’s no consensus in the research about what exactly is happening,” said Nathan Porter, senior research associate at the bureau, though he cited a separate CDC report that found “some evidence that suicide rates will be stable or will even decline during a disaster” only to increase once it has passed.

“But one thing to keep in mind is that suicide is hard to predict,” Porter continued. “And that even in cases where you have the risk factors for suicide, you can’t always predict when a suicide will occur.”

Digging into Data
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, which can provide local educational agency leaders an opportunity to look beyond the trends to ensure policies and programs addressing mental health are equitable.

For instance, while suicide rates fell for youth ages 15 to 24, that was predominantly driven by a decrease in suicides among young adults ages 20 to 24, Porter said.

“We see the overall rate sort of flatten, but we don’t see this leveling off among all groups,” he said. Similarly, suicides among males have declined but have increased among females. The numbers also seem to be declining for white and Asian Pacific Islander youth, he explained, but among Black, multiracial and Indigenous youth, rates are increasing.

“So, the trend tells one thing, but when you look at the subgroups, we’re not seeing the same patterns across all groups in the data,” Porter said. “Suicide is, as we know, a very complex thing. There’s no single factor involved, and the factors differ across groups as well, so what might work for young, white men may not work for other groups.”

Addressing student mental health
While no single intervention will work for every student, there are several methods to improve suicide prevention efforts on campus. Promoting a positive school climate where students feel connected and supported by the adults and by their peers at school is a good first step, Porter said.

A 2019 report issued by the California State Auditor recommended LEAs “ensure that their teachers and staff have the information necessary to respond consistently, promptly, and appropriately to reduce suicide risk.”

Recognizing the importance of interagency partnerships in suicide prevention efforts, the report also recommended:

  • The California Department of Education promote the adoption of the suicide prevention best practices.
  • The California Department of Public Health establish the support program for school health centers, as required by state law, to assist LEAs in establishing school health centers and in identifying and applying for available funding as authorized by law, such as Medi-Cal reimbursements.
  • The California Department of Health Care Services work with CDE to inform LEAs that they can partner with their county offices of education to centralize the administrative responsibilities necessary to obtain reimbursement through the billing option program.
“Suicide is, as we know, a very complex thing. There’s no single factor involved, and the factors differ across groups as well.”
Nathan Porter, Senior Research Associate, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Porter also recommended district leaders revisit a 2017 technical package of policy, programs and practices released by the CDC ( While not specifically about youth or California, he said materials promoting social-emotional learning can “help kids with communication and problem-solving skills, regulating emotions, resolving conflicts, [and] help them reduce risk for suicide and address the other kind of negative influences that are associated with suicide — things like substance abuse.”

CSBA’s sample Board Policy and Administrative Regulation 5141.52 – Suicide Prevention was updated in June 2021 to enhance stakeholder engagement and best practices in suicide prevention, intervention and postvention. GAMUT Policy subscribers looking for a customizable policy that is legally compliant and serves as a foundation for implementation can find it online.