Doctor says high child mortality rates are unlike anything he's seen before: 'Astonishing to see'

Posted at 6:08 PM, Mar 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-16 12:16:56-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Data from the CDC, based on research from death certificates, suggests child and teen mortality rates in the U.S. rose by 20% between 2019 and 2021, marking the largest increase in half a century.

"Youth after youth, after youth, after youth," said Charles Willis, with United Communities Against Crime.

Willis helps families plan vigils. In the past few months, he's helped plan several for children and teens, the most recent for a 13-year-old boy from Richmond.

"I have three prayer vigils scheduled for one week," Willis said. "Three."

The trend of young children and adolescents dying that Willis has grown to know all too well is not just an issue in Richmond, but nationwide.

"In my entire career, I've never seen anything like this," said Dr. Steve Woolf, Director Emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at VCU. "It was astonishing to see."

An alarming spike in death among those ages 10 to 19 is due to homicides, accidental drug overdoses, motor vehicle accidents and suicide.

Many of those deaths, Dr. Woolf said, are tied to gun violence.

"The conditions that young people are living in, especially in urban centers like Richmond, that are very difficult and create conditions that lead to conflict and violence, and if there's easy access to guns, which is happening more and more, that leads to gun-related deaths," Woolf said.

According to the research, Black children ages 10 to 19 were 20 times more likely to die by homicide than white and Asian American/Pacific Islander children, and six times more likely than Hispanic children.

Woolf says the rise in deaths, however, is impacting children across ethnic and racial groups.

"Every racial and ethnic group is experiencing an increase in this, so white Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and so forth, young people across these racial and ethnic groups are dying at higher rates," Woolf said.

Woolf said he understands that gun legislation can be controversial but supports legislation that could prevent guns from winding up in the hands of children.

He also supports policies that address poverty and lack of housing, which he said contributes to the scary statistics.

“Young people who are living in households that are really struggling to make ends meet, and also those who don’t feel social support, of the kind that families are able to offer under more normal circumstances, join up with gangs and they get involved with the wrong element," Woolf said.

Willis said his organization tries to take a community-centered approach to work with children who may be troubled.

He said he's also working on coordinated efforts to prevent youth violence with Richmond Police, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and Richmond Public Schools.

Dr. Woolf said mental and emotional health issues that persisted before the pandemic have only been exacerbated in recent years, while mental health resources for pediatric patients, especially in rural areas, are scarce.

Willis said his group is hoping to offer solutions and support for any youth who may need it.

"We do have help. There is help out there. Please, seek help," Willis said.

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