San Diego County pilot program aims to prevent childhood suicide

Caroline Karozckai welcomes 10th grade students to a suicide prevention presentation by San Diego Youth Services.
Caroline Karozckai, counselor at Mission Bay High School, welcomes 10th grade students to a suicide prevention presentation by San Diego Youth Services at Mission Bay High School in San Diego in 2022.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

$4.1 million state grant will be used to focus on identifying and acting on early warning signs of self-harm


San Diego will be among a handful of counties statewide to test a new suicide-prevention program that takes a public health approach to identifying and helping those who have attempted to harm themselves.

Called the Youth Suicide Reporting and Crisis Response Pilot Program, the $50 million initiative, sponsored by the California Health and Human Services Agency, would require reporting of suicide and attempted suicide using hospital and other systems created to track infectious disease.

Confidential reports could then be used to increase rapid responses for youth up to age 25, collaborating with schools and other local programs “to prevent subsequent suicide attempts among youth following a suicide event and to encourage help-seeking behaviors.”

Suicide has decreased somewhat in San Diego County, according to data from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office, with 55 deaths reported in 2021 compared to 60 in 2020 among those age 25 and younger. But, within that group, a more-concerning trend is emerging.

There were 18 suicides in 2021 among those age 18 and younger compared to seven in 2021. Suicide is said to be the second-leading cause of death in that age group and young adults with accidents listed as the most-common cause.

San Diego County, according to officials, was invited to participate in the program because it had the second-highest youth suicide rate recorded for 2018-2020. Other regions approached to participate include Alameda, El Dorado, Humboldt, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Solano counties.

The county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved accepting a $4.1 million state grant to cover the cost of participating in the pilot.

“It’s heartbreaking that we’re among the highest counties in California,” said Supervisor Jim Desmond. “You know, we’re facing a lot of different obstacles today with social media and all of the negative impacts we’ve seen on our youth, and so I’m glad that, you know, we’re taking a new approach with additional suicide prevention.”

It is not that San Diego County has ignored the issue.

Luke Bergmann, the county’s behavioral health director, ticked off a long list of existing or soon-to-launch programs aimed and preventing suicide in this age group. Many are focused around screening kids for the signs of distress that might lead to a suicide attempt and referring those kids to health care resources designed to prevent the situation from progressing.

But the model envisioned by the state program, he said, could help tie in those same resources while kids and young adults are still in hospital emergency departments.

“By tracking presenting concerns such as suicidal ideation and suicide attempts through emergency department visits, for example, we’d be able to detect trends and deploy a rapid response as needed,” Bergmann said.

The opportunities could be greatest for those ages 10 to 24, a group that he said “had the highest emergency department and hospitalization rates due to suicide attempts, intentional self-harm and suicidal ideation compared to other age groups.”

“A recent trial found that people who received safety planning from peers in the emergency department after a suicide attempt had significantly fewer ED visits post-discharge than those who received their safety planning from a medical provider,” Bergmann said. “Pilot funding could be used to plan and develop a peer-delivered emergency department response system for suicide attempts among youth in San Diego County.”

The plan was applauded by Dana Richardson, president and chief executive officer of Community Health Improvement Partners, which runs the San Diego Suicide Prevention Council.

Reducing suicides, he said, goes beyond treating the individual.

“It’s also vitally important to connect parents and extended family members to vital education and other resources that will empower them to take action to proactively prevent suicides by recognizing the warning signs and risk factors of suicide, and more,” Richardson said in an email.