Johnson County’s youth suicide rate fell 33% during the pandemic last year — what could be behind that

Johnson County health officials say suicide prevention efforts by groups like Zero Reasons Why, the teen-led campaign to prevent suicide, appear to have contributed to a decrease in suicide. Photo via Zero Reasons Why Facebook.

As schools fluctuate between in-person, hybrid and online only learning during the pandemic, students’ mental health has remained a top concern in Johnson County, and nationwide.

While some communities, like Clark County, Nev., saw increased youth suicide rates following COVID-19 school closures, Johnson County’s suicide rates decreased between 2019 and 2020.

In fact, youth suicide rates were down by 33% between March 2020 and December 2020, said Elizabeth Holzschuh, the county’s epidemiology director during a recent Board of County Commissioners meeting.

Holzschuh said some of the decline could be attributed to suicide prevention efforts by the county mental health center and Zero Reasons Why, a teen-led campaign for teen suicide prevention.

“What their work leading up to this point has done is, it’s de-stigmatized it,” Holzschuh said. “It’s allowed people to know it’s ok to not be ok. They’re reaching out for help, but they’re maybe not getting to that point of attempting or completing suicide.”

Community partner efforts

During a recent virtual meeting, Zero Reasons Why had a number of community partners discuss their goals and efforts around mental health.

Rennie McKinney, director of clinical services and behavioral health at AdventHealth Kansas City, discussed the hospital system’s efforts to catch more people who say they’re ok, when in reality, they aren’t. Statistics show 45% of adults who die by suicide have seen a primary care physician in the last month, she said.

AdventHealth is working on screenings that, depending on how someone answers certain questions, follow-up questions are triggered. This effort will hopefully direct people in need of resources to those resources, McKinney said.

Kyle Kessler, executive director of Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, Inc., discussed statewide initiatives and positive trends in mental health. Kessler said ZRW’s impact can be seen in the state’s suicide numbers among people ages 15 to 24, which decreased for the first time in 2019 by 18%.

“You cannot tell me — no one will ever convince me — that Zero Reasons Why hasn’t saved some lives,” Kessler said.

Zero Reasons Why initiatives adapt to COVID-19

And Zero Reasons Why is continuing its efforts to support mental health in 2021. The organization, created in 2018 by Johnson County teens and the Mental Health Center, is working to expand its reach to the entire Kansas City metro area.

Komal Kaur, an Olathe East junior and ZRW teen council representative, said “this is a time to rally together” to focus on the campaign’s three-pillar priorities: Ending the stigma of mental health, committing to education and building community support.

Zero Reasons Why wall Oak Park Mall
Zero Reasons Why will work to expand its reach to the entire Kansas City metro area, as well as to middle schoolers. Above, a 2019 Oak Park Mall storefront created by the teen-led campaign. Photo via Zero Reasons Why Facebook.

While Zero Reasons Why normally engages with the community in-person, almost all of their initiatives for 2021 had to be adapted to accommodate COVID-19.

Below is a look at what each committee’s goals are for 2021:

  • The events committee is looking to hold virtual events as well as events for students to implement in their own schools. A wellness rock garden is one of the committee’s ideas, in which students would work together to raise mental health awareness and spread kindness.
  • In an effort to get youth involved earlier, the middle school committee is looking into connecting with middle school principals so ZRW can speak to students.
  • The content committee will be working on spreading awareness with 12 topics that will be highlighted on ZRW’s Instagram for one week each month this year. January’s focus was mental health myths, and February’s topic will be racism.
  • ZRW’s convening committee is working to ensure the campaign’s message reaches across demographics and wants to increase participation and attendance.
  • Similar to the middle school committee, the marketing committee will also focus on working with eighth graders this year. During mental health awareness week — the first full week of October — the committee will roll out interactive, online activities.
  • The orientation committee is aiming to compile a guide for new members, which may include pairing new members with an existing member to help them along the way.