News 3 investigates youth suicide rates during COVID-19 pandemic

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Posted at 1:02 PM, Feb 25, 2021

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - Virginia state officials say there's been a large spike in the number of kids calling the suicide prevention hotline.

News 3 spoke to Deana McClung, a local mom who knows the unbearable pain of losing a loved one to suicide.

She said her son was outgoing, played guitar and had dreams of being a musician, but in 2014, 19-year-old David McClung took his own life.

“There's a lot of anger. It's weird what grief does to you. It's like a bag of emotions thrown on you that you don't want,” Deana said. “Anger, guilt, confusion - wondering, 'Why? How, why did this happen?'”

Deana also lost her brother-in-law to suicide.

After David's death, Deana said she felt heartbroken and extremely depressed, and the grief caused her to feel suicidal.

“I don't mean to simplify it, but basically, you're at the end of your rope; you just lose hope. It's just a matter of losing hope,” Deana said.

She said she thought about her other son and David’s son, her grandchild, and was able to pull herself out of her depression.

Deana said she also received help from many people in the community. She joined support groups and now is an advocate to raise awareness and help others.

As COVID-19 continues to force isolation, News 3 was concerned about how many kids are losing hope. We requested the number of youth suicides from the Medical Examiner's Office.

There were 16 suicides from kids ages 10 to 19 in Hampton Roads in 2020, according to preliminary data - one fewer than 2017, which had a six-year high of 17.

Hampton Roads' youth suicide rates were as follows:

2016: 12 suicides

2017: 17 suicides

2018: 10 suicides

2019: 14 suicides

2020: 16 suicides

Statewide, the youth suicide rates were as follows:

2015: 56 suicides

2016: 68 suicides

2017: 68 suicides

2018: 84 suicides

2019: 66 suicides

2020: 82 suicides

The numbers show that there has not been a drastic increase in suicides during the pandemic.

News 3 also asked for the number of calls made to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

State officials said Virginia's NSPL saw increases in calls from specific populations, including children and youth 12 years and under and youth and young adults aged 13-24 years.

In December 2019 (pre-pandemic), there were n=14 calls to NSPL from children and youth aged 12 years and under. In May 2020 (during pandemic), there were n=94 calls to NSPL from children and youth aged 12 years and under, for an increase of 571% from December 2019 to May 2020. In December 2019 (pre-pandemic), there were n=262 calls to NSPL from youth and young adults aged 13-24 years. In May 2020 (during pandemic), there were n=369 calls to NSPL from youth and young adults aged 13-24 years, for an increase of 41% from December 2019 to May 2020.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in Virginia, VDH, along with other state agencies, are working tirelessly to support suicide prevention efforts. VDH co-leads a Suicide Prevention Interagency Advisory Group (SPIAG) with Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which is a multi-disciplinary workgroup between state agencies, healthcare systems, community service boards, and community-based organizations responsible to develop and update the Suicide Prevention across the Lifespan Plan [] along with enhancing suicide prevention efforts statewide. Coupled with the Governor's and Mayor's Challenges to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families [], suicide prevention remains at the forefront as a key public health issue that continues to be addressed through collaboration with multiple organizations and systems across Virginia to protect the health and well-being of all Virginians.

“I love that the numbers are going up. That's a very big positive because most of the time, young people, teenagers don't contact a crisis hotline,” said Ames Hart, who is part of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention Virginia Beach Chapter. “What that means is they're calling instead of acting on thoughts of suicide.”

Deana said she wants to change the stigma about suicide, and says many people like her son and brother-in-law weren’t outwardly depressed.

She said many people thinking about committing suicide do not show they are unhappy to the outside world, and said David appeared happy and enjoyed making people laugh.

Deana encourages people to check on their loved ones.

If you or a loved one needs help or is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can also click here for resources on youth suicide prevention.