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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: Madison Cawthorn Inflated Stats When Asking School Board Not To Mandate Masks

 Rep. Madison Cawthorn said that suicide attempts rose for children and teens in the past year, and said masking played a part. Was he accurate?
Gage Skidmore
Rep. Madison Cawthorn said that suicide attempts rose for children and teens in the past year and said masking played a part. Was he accurate?

U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina doesn't like the government being in the business of mandating masks. No surprise there. But some statistics he cited recently in support of his position did surprise PolitiFact reporter Paul Specht of WRAL. He joins WFAE’s Sarah Delia for our weekly Fact Check segment.

Sarah Delia: Paul, welcome.

Paul Specht: Good morning.

Delia: So, Paul, Cawthorn represents western North Carolina, but he went to Johnston County, east of Raleigh, to urge the school board there not to mandate masks in school.

Specht: Depending on when you heard Cawthorn speak, he gave different versions of this stat. For instance, when he spoke to reporters, he just mentioned suicide and death rates are up 255% in one study that a hospital did. He was a little more specific when he spoke to the school board. He said suicide attempts rather than deaths from children and teens are up 250%.

 Rep. Madison Cawthorn speaks to the school board in Johnston County, North Carolina.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn speaks to the school board in Johnston County, North Carolina.

And so that's the claim that we checked because he told us he did mean to talk about suicide attempts, not deaths, and children and teens, not adults.

Delia: And again, he says one city hospital did it in the United States. Is that a study for what the hospital has experienced or was it a study of what's happening in America?

Specht: We asked his office that. We said, where are you getting these numbers? And they sent us a link to an NPR story. And it's titled Child Psychiatrists Warn That The Pandemic May Be Driving Up Kids’ Suicide Risk. And it's from back in February. Cawthorn's office pulled out a line and it talked about suicide attempts among young people at one hospital in Indianapolis. And it provides two numbers here. One number is comparing October 2020 to October 2019, just those months. And if you compare just those months, the hospital did see an increase of 250% in teens being hospitalized for suicide attempts.

But if you look at the year-to-year numbers — all of 2019 to all of 2020 — the hospital reported a rise that was much lower. In fact, a hospital spokesman told us they saw a 51% increase over the year starting in March 2020 to March 2021.

It's important not to minimize the subject. But these numbers are not as high as what Cawthorn said. And we could not find any evidence that those numbers at that hospital in particular were in any way related to mask policies at schools.

Delia: So what does Madison Cawthorn say about this use of these figures? I mean, does he admit that they're misleading?

Specht: He believes they're indicative of a problem of masking and that it does have detrimental impacts on students. We haven't seen that. What we found, there was a paper published in September 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that speculated there would be, "minimal physiological impacts" on wearing a mask.

But we couldn't find any research suggesting that mask policies have anything to do with whether or not a child injures himself or herself, their self on purpose.

Delia: What's the official PolitiFact rating of these claims?

Specht: We rated this claim "mostly false." There's an element of truth here that one hospital did see a 255% increase in suicide attempts among young people in one October compared to another October, 2019 to 2020. But beyond that, he left out so much context and gave people a really misleading idea of what the stats really are.

And I think it's important, again, to note that this is a serious issue. And the CDC in June announced that they saw suspected suicide attempts rise 22% among people age 12 to 17 from the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2020. So that's something that needs to be talked about.

But if you talk to mental health experts and advocates, they'll tell you it does not help, it's actually potentially harmful, to speak in these alarmist terms like Cawthorn did. He used the word "skyrocketing."

Delia: Well, you mentioned that Madison Cawthorn, he left out some context when using these figures. What was some of that important context?

Specht: Aside from cherry-picking these numbers from a hospital in Indianapolis and comparing two months rather than yearlong data, he sort of connected dots that scientists have not connected yet. One thing that's really important to note is that it takes time to analyze this data and to talk with these people who are going through tough times and determine, you know, why is someone depressed? Why did someone feel the need to go to the hospital? Why was it self-harm?

And the CDC, even in its report, said that their report was not intended to diagnose motivations.The CDC speculated it's possible that more teens were even taken to the E.R. for suicidal thoughts or self-harm because they were at home with their parents more. It's possible that their parents witnessed something, witnessed the self-harm. Or it's possible that parents talked to their teens before anything happened.

And if the latter is true, if there is more communication happening about mental health and about depression, that's a good thing.

Delia: That's PolitiFact reporter Paul Specht of WRAL. Paul, thanks for joining us.

Specht: Thank you for having me.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.