When the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its 2012 data report last week, it provided a mixed bag of statistics that suggest both progress and problems in terms of how Montana’s child well-being measures up. With a ranking of 28th across four domains – economic well-being, education, health, and family and community – Montana is performing better than average in three of them, but is ranked dead last in the area of child health.
One of the indicators within the child health domain is the state’s child death rate. Regardless of political persuasion, letting Montana’s children – OUR children – die at a rate that is higher than almost anywhere else in the country is inexcusable.
In 2009, there were 99 deaths among Montana children ages 1 through 19, which yielded a child death rate of 42 deaths per 100,000 children and put us in fifth place from the bottom compared to other states. Massachusetts had the country’s lowest child death rate in 2009 with 17 child deaths per 100,000 children, less than half the Montana rate.
People die from a multitude of different causes but when examining causes of death for the 1-19 age group, two stand out. In 2009, 34 children died as a result of motor vehicle accidents and 14 committed suicide. No other cause comes close in frequency and neither cause has improved over the past decade. However, both are preventable.
Other sources indicate that the number of motor vehicle accidents caused by young drivers has gone down dramatically in the past decade, and that fewer teens consider committing suicide. The same sources also show that the percent of teens who actually attempt suicide (but survive) remains unchanged, as does the number of teens that actually succeed in taking their own life.
In the realm of traffic deaths, the vast majority of children die as occupants in vehicles involved in accidents, and primarily at age 15 or later. Since teens have become safer drivers in the past 10 years, this would suggest that teens die as passengers in cars driven by older drivers, and most likely as a result of a lack of safety practices, i.e. lack of seat-belt use on the part of teens and driving recklessly or under the influence on the part of the older drivers.
When considering youth suicide, these also occur primarily at age 15 or later, and most often through the use of a firearm. It’s difficult for most of us to imagine a state of mind in which suicide is the preferable choice. It should not, however, be difficult for a child whose mental state has deteriorated that far to get the help he or she needs to find an alternative way forward. Unfortunately, the majority of Montana counties have some level of Mental Health Provider Shortage Designation, as determined by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Pediatric mental health professionals are in even shorter supply, allowing mental health problems that start in early childhood to deteriorate to the point of suicide. Montana does, however, have a suicide prevention hotline that connects callers to counselors at crisis centers in Great Falls or Bozeman (800-273-TALK).
As adults, it is our responsibility to take care of children in our state, regardless of what they are doing in other states. The level of involvement this responsibility requires is widely debated. At the very least, it should include helping our children stay alive.
Thale Dillon, Director
Montana KIDS COUNT