Few events in life are sadder or more tragic than the death of a child, whether the cause is accidental suffocation while sleeping, a drowning, suicide or homicide.
Worse yet, a new report found that 337 of 806 child deaths in Arizona during 2017 – 42 percent – were preventable, with improper sleeping conditions alone claiming the lives of 83 children who were smothered.
The report also spotlights other preventable sources of childhood deaths, citing spikes in suicide and drownings as well as accidental tragedies that occur when children gain access to unsecured firearms.
Among the tragic highlights:
Firearms deaths increased from 36 to 43, with 88 percent ruled suicides or homicides and 63 percent occurring in the child’s home.
Substance abuse claimed the lives of 136 children younger than 18 and mostly 15-17.
Motor-vehicle related deaths fell 8 percent, from 71 in 2016 to 65 in 2017.
The Arizona Child Fatality Review Program’s 2017 report found that many of these SIDS deaths were attributable to a parent sleeping with a child or children sleeping together.
These deaths can be prevented by following “the ABCs of Sleep,’’ a relatively simple series of preventative measures that include infants sleeping alone, on their backs instead of on their side or stomach, and in a crib, the report noted, advising against having loose bedding nearby.
“It’s just a simple, simple thing,’’ said Dr. Russell Horton, a pediatrician for Banner Health. “You go to sleep thinking everything is fine, and you wake up to a tragedy.’’
Suffocation deaths are classified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Although SIDS deaths in Arizona increased between 2016 and 2017, U.S Centers for Disease Control statistics show a sharp drop in sleeping-related deaths among children less than a year old since the prevention programs were adopted in the early 1990s.
Horton said hospitals typically instruct new parents about safe sleeping precautions.
The report also amplified a trend noted by education consultant Katey McPherson and counselors with behavioral health agencies – a disturbing 32 percent increase in suicides statewide, with 38 in 2016 and 50 in 2017.
The report found that 76 percent of suicide deaths involved boys and 24 percent involved girls. Experts say girls are much more likely to attempt suicide than boys as a cry for help and to tell others about their emotional struggles, while boys are more likely to act on the impulse to take their lives.
The most common risk factors cited by the report for suicides by children were a history of family discord at 20 percent, followed by a recent break-up in a relationship at 18 percent, an argument with a parent at 16 percent and a history of substance abuse at 14 percent.
“In 2017 the state of Arizona was at a total of 50 children loss by suicide and the youngest being 10 years old. It’s heartbreaking to read this for it is reported, and advocates in the valley are constantly screaming this is “preventable,” said Natalia Chimbo-Andrade, director of community education and outreach for Community Bridges, an East Valley behavioral health agency.
“This is a clear indication our youth need true connection, and resilience more than ever,’’ she added.
Chimbo-Andrade recommends that parents develop a meaningful relationship with teenagers.
“Our state should not be in denial or choose to ignore this rising concern with our youth. There is good work being done with various agencies and organizations, but without the support of the entire community and the entire state. The work that is taking place is a life preserver in a river full of kids who are barley holding their heads above water,’’ Chimbo-Andrade wrote in an email.
Experts say suicide is traditionally under-reported, with deaths often attributed to other causes and many people trying to avoid the stigma attached to the topic.
“It’s a bigger problem than we realize,’’ Horton said. “We need more access’’ to behavioral health services. “Insurance doesn’t cover behavioral health well.’’
Horton said more early intervention is required to keep behavioral health issues from worsening to the point that suicide is perceived as an option by a troubled teen. He said teens should never feel that it is shameful to talk about their problems.
The escalating number of suicides – which mostly claimed the lives of teenagers – eclipsed another chronic tragedy, drownings, which also recorded a disturbing increase.
Child drownings increased to 35 from 27 in 2016, according to the report. That amounts to a 30 percent increase, with a corresponding increase in the number of drownings per 100,000 residents. The mortality rate rose to 21 percent from 1.7, after a steady decline that started in 2014.
“Vigilance in promoting protective factors must continue as drowning fatalities in Arizona begin to climb,’’ the report concludes.
“Lack of supervision and access to water are the leading risk factors in drowning deaths, so prevention efforts need to continue to promote proper supervision of young children around water,’’ the report said.