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Colorado kids and teens are dying at a rate higher than the U.S. average — and suicide is to blame

The state ranked poorly in health outcomes and mediocre overall in the latest national report on child well-being by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Junior high students walk the hallways of Simla Junior High at Big Sandy School Monday, February 25, 2019. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado is among the wealthiest, healthiest states in the nation but has a higher teen and child death rate than the national average, a rate that has grown worse over the past two decades.

The reason is suicide, which reached an all-time high in 2017 and is the leading cause of death for Coloradans ages 10-24.

The startling statistic is part of a national report released Monday that ranks child wellness across the country based on economic security, health and education. The annual Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation — one of the most well-known rankings of children’s wellness — put Colorado at 20th overall for child well-being but 41st among states for children’s health.

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The poor health rating is a result of Colorado’s high death rate among kids and teens, lower-than-average birth weight for babies, and above-average use of alcohol and drugs among teens.

Colorado’s teen suicide rate has climbed from 12 suicides per 100,000 teens in 2014 to 21 deaths per 100,000 teens in 2017, the highest on record since the state health department began in 1980 a detailed tracking by age group.

“This big jump in the teen suicide rate clearly shows we need to be doing more as a state to make sure kids have the mental health care they need,” said Sarah Hughes, vice president of research initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Colorado’s death rate among residents under age 18 is 28 per 100,000, up from 25 in 1990. The national rate is 26 deaths per 100,000.

“Colorado is known nationally as being a very active, healthy state and a state that has a very educated population,” Hughes said. “That is true for adults, but we are not always providing the best opportunities for kids to be healthy.”

A kindergartener at Downtown Denver Expeditionary School reads during class on January 31, 2019. (Cyrus McCrimmon for the Colorado Children’s Campaign)

More babies

Colorado’s child-population growth was the sixth highest in the nation since the first Kids Count survey, in 1990, with an additional 1.26 million residents under age 18. That’s a jump of 43 percent in two decades.

Colorado’s birth rate started climbing in 1997 and peaked in 2006, at 70.5 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. It has fallen steadily since then and in 2017 was at 56 births per 1,000.

Still, even as the birth rate has declined, the number of births continues to rise.

MORE: First-of-its-kind study of Colorado suicides reveals traumatized communities — for reasons that differ across the state

Ethnic disparities

The percentage of kids who are Latino, black or other minorities is now above 40 in Colorado, while the state’s ethnic disparity in wealth, health and education persists.

“In Colorado, we import a lot of very healthy and wealthy people,” said Kellie Teter, maternal child health program manager at Denver Public Health. “They move here from other places. We don’t really invest in the  children and families in Colorado. We just don’t do right by the families who have been here for many generations.”

Colorado compared favorably to other states for the low number of children — 12 percent — living in poverty. But of the 149,000 kids under age 18 living in poverty in Colorado, more than half are Latino, black or identify as two or more races.

Health insurance

Colorado ranked 18th out of 50 states for the number of children with health insurance, but the range was narrow among the top states.

About 4 percent of Colorado children do not have health insurance, thanks in part to the expansion of Medicaid and children’s insurance programs in recent years. In the top state, Massachusetts, just 1 percent of kids do not have health coverage, the report found.

MORE: What’s behind Colorado’s new suicide prevention campaign? Real teen voices

Education and Colorado’s low graduation rate

Colorado’s reading and math scores are higher than the national average, yet the state was near the bottom in on-time graduation rates, at 44th. “While the percentage of young people failing to graduate on time has fallen in the last few years, indicating improvement, Colorado has not kept up with the progress of other states,” the Colorado Children’s Campaign said in a release.

About one-fifth of Colorado high school students do not graduate high school within four years.

“It’s not what it would appear on the surface,” said Andy Tucker, director of postsecondary and workforce readiness at the state Department of Education.

Colorado, unlike other states, counts every student in its graduation rates, including kids who attend school in special facilities, he said. Also, the state in recent years has shifted focus to the five-year graduation rate.

A kindergartener at Downtown Denver Expeditionary School takes a break from classwork January 31, 2019. (Cyrus McCrimmon for the Colorado Children’s Campaign)

The four-year graduation rate is 79 percent, while the five-year rate is 84.2 percent.

New statewide graduation requirements for the class of 2021 mean students will have to demonstrate knowledge in math and language arts in order to receive a diploma. While four years of high school is still the norm, it’s important that students who need more time to prepare for college or the workforce delay graduation until they’re ready, Tucker said.

“It’s largely philosophical,” he said. “We really believe students should graduate when they are truly ready and not just because they got four years and they’re done. We believe in readiness, not time.”


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