- Associated Press - Monday, October 19, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The number of youth suicides in North Carolina increased by more than one-third between 2013 and 2014 and has doubled since the start of the decade, a child safety panel reported Monday in its annual review of child deaths in the state.

Forty-six children died by suicide last year, compared to 34 the year before and 23 in 2010, according to data collected by state public health and statistics agencies and released by the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force.

While comprising a small portion of the 1,323 children up to age 17 who died in 2014, the suicides are particularly worrisome and will be the focus of a task force committee meeting in February.

“Every child who dies by suicide is a preventable tragedy,” said Michelle Hughes, executive director of NC Child, which lobbies on children’s issues. Hughes is co-chairwoman of the task force committee that will discuss youth suicide, with a goal of presenting recommendations to the General Assembly to consider when it reconvenes in April.

Multiple issues are playing out for children at risk of killing themselves, Hughes said, including high anxiety, mental illness, bullying and negative family situations.

“They are still in the middle of brain development, and so particularly for young people, life can seem very overwhelming,” she said.

The North Carolina Division of Public Health, the state’s mental health treatment division and the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill helped develop a “suicide prevention plan” released this year. It lays out a pathway to coordinate suicide prevention efforts statewide and provide easy access for the public - including business owners, educators, health care providers - to learn about warning signs and resources.

The overall child death rate for 2014 was at 57.8 deaths per 100,000 children, which was slightly above 56.6 deaths in 2013 and reflects a relatively steady rate since 2010. Overall, the child death date has fallen 46 percent since 1991, when the task force began and the rate was 107.6 deaths per 100,000.

Looking at raw numbers, child deaths by homicide (34 in 2014) and by poisoning (six deaths) continue to decline, while deaths by drowning (33) and fire (11) increased, the report said.

Infants continue to comprise roughly 65 percent of the child deaths, with low-birth weights and premature births the most widespread contributor, Hughes said.

Death rates among black and American Indian children are higher than the overall rate, while the rate among Hispanic children is below the state average, data show.

The task force is a legislative study commission comprised of health and children’s advocates, law enforcement officials and lawmakers. Panel recommendations that have become law include a ban on cellphone use by drivers under 18 and minimum age requirements for operating all-terrain vehicles.

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