NEW YORK - The homicide rate for older U.S. teenagers rose to its highest point in nearly 25 years during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the suicide rate for adults in their early 20s was the worst in more than 50 years, government researchers said Thursday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report examined the homicide and suicide rates among 10- to 24-year-olds from 2001 to 2021.
The increase is alarming and "reflects a mental health crisis among young people and a need for a number of policy changes," said Dr. Steven Woolf, a Virginia Commonwealth University researcher who studies U.S. death trends and wasn’t involved in the CDC report.
Experts cited several possible reasons for the increases, including higher rates of depression, limited availability of mental health services and the number of guns in U.S. homes.
Guns were used in 54% of suicides and 93% of homicides among the age group in 2021, the most recent year for which statistics were available.
"Picture a teenager sitting in their bedroom feeling desperate and making a decision, impulsively, to take their own life," Woolf said. If they have access to a gun, "it's game over."
Suicide and homicide were the second and third leading causes of death for 10- to 24-year-olds, after a category of accidental deaths that includes motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings and overdoses. Other researchers have grouped the data by the method of death, and concluded that guns are now the biggest killer of U.S. children.
Earlier this year, Woolf and other researchers looking at CDC data noted dramatic increases in child and adolescent death rates overall at the beginning of the pandemic, and found suicide and homicide were important factors.c
The report also found:
—Suicide and homicide death rates remained far higher for older teenagers and young adults than they were for 10- to 14-year-olds.
—In 2021, there were about 2,900 suicides in youths ages 10 to 19, and 4,200 in 20- to 24-year-olds. About 3,000 homicide deaths were reported in the younger group, and nearly 3,900 in the adults in their early 20s.
—The homicide death rate jumped from 8.9 deaths per 100,000 teens aged 15 to 19 in 2019 to 12.3 in 2020. It rose to 12.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2021, the highest since 1997, according to CDC data.
—Homicide deaths became more common than suicide deaths among 15- to 19-year-olds, while suicide was more common in the younger and older age groups.
—While large increases were seen in homicide rates for young Black and Hispanic people in the U.S., there were not significant increases for their white counterparts, other CDC data shows.
—Among 20- to 24-year-olds, the homicide death rate jumped 34% from 2019 to 2020 — from 13.4 per 100,000 population to 18 per 100,000. It held stable in 2021, but the suicide rate rose enough in 2021 — to 19.4 per 100,000 — to surpass the homicide rate.
Suicide death rates in children and teens were rising before COVID-19, but they jumped up at the beginning of the pandemic. Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, a psychiatrist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said the reasons may be hard to pinpoint, but that isolation during COVID-19 lockdowns could be a factor.
"There is a misperception that if you talk to young people about depression, they’ll get depressed. A don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy for depression is not effective," Trivedi said. "The earlier we can identify the ones who need help, the better chance we’ll have at saving lives."