Concerning Trends U.S. Teen Death Rates in 2020
As the nation grieves the heartbreaking loss of children in Uvalde, Texas, and those in Buffalo, New York, and countless others in recent weeks, months and years, public discussion has turned to how we can work together to reduce gun violence in the United States. The tragic reality is that too many young people are dying from preventable causes every day, including homicides, accidents and suicides — and the latest data in the KIDS COUNT® Data Center show that the overall teen death rate is on the rise, after decades of declining. This blog post breaks down recent trends on preventable deaths among teens.
The Latest Findings in Teen Deaths
The U.S. teen death rate from all causes has dramatically decreased since 1990 (the earliest year available in the KIDS COUNT Data Center), from 88 deaths per 100,000 teens ages 15 to 19 to 59 per 100,000 in 2020. While many factors contribute to death rates, including access to health care and other resources, community safety and physical and mental health, the drop in teen mortality is largely due to public health successes to reduce motor vehicle accidents.
In the past decade, however, a concerning shift has occurred, with the overall teen death rate steadily increasing from 2014 to 2017 and then sharply spiking in 2020, from 49 deaths per 100,000 teens in 2019 to 59 per 100,000. This spike meant 12,278 young lives lost in 2020 compared to 10,258 in 2019. Certain states had particularly high teen death rates in 2020, including Louisiana with 97 per 100,000, Alaska with 96 per 100,000 and Arkansas with 88 per 100,000.
What’s Driving This Increase?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provides detailed data by cause of death, the major categories of teen deaths are unintentional injuries or accidents (e.g., car crashes), homicides and suicides. While rates for all three leading causes climbed between 2014 and 2017, rates for accidents and homicides started rising in this period for the first time in years, and then both rates jumped sharply in 2020, while suicides did not. Digging into the data further, the firearm death rate for teens — and the rate of homicides due to firearms, specifically — mirrored these rises in 2014 and 2020. In fact, in 2020, firearms killed more teens ages 15 to 19 than did car accidents, which had been the specific leading cause of death for decades.
Among accidental deaths, an increasing share (30% in 2020) are due to drug overdoses and poisoning. The nation’s leading health organizations are urging policymakers and others to take further action to address the troubling rise in overdoses among teens and other age groups.
In brighter news, the teen suicide rate declined from 2018 to 2020, after steadily increasing over the previous decade. Forty-eight percent of teen suicides were by firearm in 2020; youth mental health continues to be a national crisis, with access to care a serious barrier for many young people and families.
Continued Inequities by Race and Ethnicity
One thing has not changed in decades: Black and American Indian youth have the highest death rates of all racial and ethnic groups with data. The KIDS COUNT Data Center provides the teen death rate from all causes by race and ethnicity. In 2020, the rate for Black teens ages 15 to 19 was 109 per 100,000, almost twice the national rate and an alarming increase from 82 per 100,000 in 2019. The rate for American Indian youth was 68 per 100,000 in 2020, about level with 2019 but up from 59 per 100,000 in 2018. The Latino teen death rate has inched up in each of the past three years from 41 per 100,000 in 2018 to 55 in 2020. The death rate for white teens declined between 2018 and 2019 but rose to 49 per 100,000 in 2020. Rates increased slightly over this three-year period for both youth with two or more races and Asian and Pacific Islander teens to 34 and 27 per 100,000 in 2020, respectively.
A 2022 analysis by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions reported that young Black and Latino males, particularly young Black males, are disproportionately victims of gun homicides and that 52% of all deaths among Black teens in 2020 were due to firearms. These racial disparities are perpetuated by systemic inequities, such as socioeconomic inequality, lack of access to opportunities, under-resourced neighborhoods, discrimination and other factors. The Johns Hopkins report also outlines evidence-based program and policy solutions, including community violence interventions.
Each loss of life is a tragedy and takes an emotional and economic toll on families and communities. We know that it’s possible to reduce preventable deaths, and each sector and level of government can take steps to reverse these concerning trends among youth in our communities.
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Also, check out the Foundation’s report on improving community safety through the use of public health strategies.
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