Maryland Teen Suicide Rate Stable, Bucking Sharp National Increase

By BERNIE BECKER, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in September that the national youth suicide rate jumped 8 percent in 2004, the largest increase in the last 14 years.

But in Maryland, the rate remained largely unchanged in 2004, the last year for national data is available. Officials attribute that to the state's long-term commitment to preventing youth suicides, a commitment that began in the 1980s.

"Maryland really began to address the problem correctly" in the 1980s, said Edgar Wiggins, executive director of Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. That's why "there really have been significant decreases over the last two decades."

Maryland's chief medical examiner reported 86 suicides among 10- to 24-year-olds in the state in 2004, up slightly from the previous two years.

It is still "a rare event," said Mark Riddle, a psychiatrist at the John's Hopkins Children's Center: The state-reported suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds in Maryland was around one for every 13,000 in 2004.

Teen and youth suicides occurred much more frequently in the 1980s. Maryland commonly had more than 100 suicides from that age group two decades ago, when it became one of the first states to start addressing the problem.

A governor's task force on youth suicide was created in 1986. That led to the hiring of Henry Westray as director of the state's Youth Suicide Prevention Program.

The state now has the oldest and largest statewide conference on teen suicide prevention, Westray said. The 19th annual conference convened Wednesday.

Lisa Hurka Covington, who founded Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids after her sister committed suicide in 1991, said the conference has grown much larger since she started attending 15 years ago. She estimated around 500 people attended this year's conference in Baltimore County.

The conference included panels with suicide survivors and on preventing suicide in public schools and among African-American youth. Information on mental illness and other related topics was also available.

"People leave knowing a heck of a lot more than when they came," Hurka Covington said.

Advocates believe the conference and the state's history battling youth suicide has contributed to Maryland's recent success in stemming teen suicides.

The state became the first to install a toll-free, statewide youth crisis hotline in 1990 and installed emergency phones on the Francis Scott Key and Bay bridges in 2002.

The hotline, as well as other services such as mobile crisis teams and improved substance abuse programs, "is really what's made a difference," Wiggins said. "Support services are available 24 hours a day."

Even with that support, Maryland had "basically mimicked" federal suicide rates over the years, Westray said.

He and other suicide advocates in Maryland are hesitant to point to any one explanation for the state's ability to avoid 2004's national increase.

"Every case is different," said Hurka Covington.

Since he was hired almost two decades ago as the first employee to focus on battling youth suicide, Westray remains a staff of one, even as some states hire multiple employees to focus on youth suicide.

"It would be great to have some more manpower," Westray said.

But with Maryland in the midst of a $1.7 billion shortfall, Westray and other advocates are not confident more funds are on the way.

Still, advocates believe they will continue to make progress as they tackle issues like bullying in schools and suicide among gay youth.

Parents and educators "didn't even want to say the 's' word" when Hurka Covington became an advocate. Now, she said her group gives presentations at high schools and colleges, PTA meetings and to police departments.

"We're doing a whole lot in Maryland," said Westray. "It's probably not enough, but it's more" than a lot of other places.

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