ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico has a suicide rate 1.5 times that of the national average, and legislative analysts say a new plan is needed to address the many causes.

Analysts with the Legislative Finance Committee released their findings this week, saying the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues and suicide rates are likely to worsen. Like elsewhere in the U.S., the state is projecting a 20% increase in behavioral health needs.

The state Health Department reestablished its suicide prevention coalition in 2019 but the state still lacks a current prevention plan. The analysts are recommending that the state as part of the work to draft a plan establish a goal to reduce suicides by 10% over five years.

“State agencies and the suicide prevention coalition should expand and use proven initiatives, including ensuring care is provided to those in crisis and that care continues after a crisis, increasing access to behavioral healthcare through tele-health and expanding gatekeeper training in schools,” the report states.

According to state data, there were 515 suicides in New Mexico last year and preliminary information shows total suicides are about the same for the first 10 months of 2020. However, monthly totals for May and July outpaced those from the previous year.

Officials said one reason the suicide numbers are comparable so far to last year is the delay in determining the cause of deaths. Another possibility is that behavioral health problems may not manifest themselves immediately after a person suffers trauma, including trauma related to the pandemic.

In New Mexico, the data shows suicide rates are highest among men, non-minorities, and Native Americans and successful suicides commonly involve a gun. Rates also are high among LGBTQ youth.

Among children under 15, there were five suicide deaths from January through October in 2019. There were seven this year during that same period, according to the report.

Among young adults between the ages of 15 and 24, the report states that suicides increased by three to 66 for the first 10 months of the year.

“While this increase is not statistically significant, it is potentially concerning as suicides in this age group also increased between 2018 and 2019, and as there is evidence of increased behavioral health needs for youth,” the report says.

Parents and educators have been particularly concerned about the well-being of school-age children given that in-person classes and activities have been on hold for months now.

New Mexico’s history of high suicide rates also is a cause for concern.

The analysts reported that since 2008, suicide rates in New Mexico have averaged 50% higher than the national rate. Overall, suicide accounts for 29% of deaths among 15-to-24-years-olds in the state and since 2014, New Mexico has been among the top 15 states for teen suicide.

New Mexico is one of the few states without legislation requiring suicide prevention training in schools, which would teach adults to recognize warning signs.

The report recommends that the state consider requiring school districts to offer suicide prevention programs for middle and high school students and channel resources to those districts that have the greatest need for behavioral health services.

For the last fiscal year, an additional $12 million for guidance counselors, social workers, counselors and psychologists went unspent, according to budget data from the state Public Education Department.

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