Amid surge in teen suicide, $25 million gift establishes new center at UNC

Amid surge in teen suicide, $25 million gift establishes new center at UNC

A $25 million gift to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will fund a new center built around reducing youth suicides. The move comes as child and teen suicide rates have increased in recent years due in part to the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The gift, made by UNC alum William Starling and his wife, Dana, will create the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute at the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. According to a UNC press release, the center will focus on three components of causation and neurobiology, clinical preventions, and community outreach and engagement.

“This is a critical situation,” said Dr. Patrick Sullivan, the director of the new center, in a statement. “Many measures of mental health are worse over the past five years. The bottom line is that at every level many people are struggling — rates of anxiety and depression have gone through the roof, and the impact on teens and their development has been especially massive. And one of the main red flags is attempted suicide and people who die by suicide.”

According to data from the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force, the total number of youth suicides clocked in at 56 in 2020 and 57 in 2021, a jump from the 2019 figure of 36. The numbers, however, are not as elevated compared to past years — 52 suicides in 2018, 44 in 2017, and 47 in 2016. But overall, the task force notes that youth suicides are up over the last decade.

The task force has also reported a 46% increase in self-inflicted injury visits to emergency departments among girls ages 10-14 from 2020 to 2021.

The suicide crisis has come home to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus as well. In October, the campus closed down for a “wellness day” following the deaths of two students.

The Starlings have a personal connection to the issue of youth suicide. They made the gift in honor of their two sons, Tyler and Gregory, who died of suicide.

“Our two children are gone, and it’s important to recognize their wonderful, short lives,” said Starling. “I’m not sure how else to better do that than to help other families who may be struggling with their own children down the road. We want to recognize our children, and this is a special way to do that.”

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