The rate of suspected suicides and suicide attempts by poisoning among youths rose sharply during the pandemic, a new study says. Among children 10 to 12 years old, the rate increased more than 70% form 2019 to 2021.
This new analysis, published Thursday in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, looked at what the National Poison Data System categorized as “suspected suicides” by self-poisoning for 2021 among people ages 10 to 19; the records included both suicide attempts and deaths by suicide.
The data showed attempted suicides and suicides by poisoning increased 30% in 2021 compared with 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Younger children, ages 10 to 12 years, saw the biggest increase at 73%. For 13- to 15-year-olds, there was a 48.8% increase in suspected suicides and attempts by poisoning from 2019 to 2021. Girls seemed to be the most impacted; there was a 36.8% increase in suspected suicides and attempts by poisoning among girls.
The records showed that many of the children used medicines that would be commonly found around the house, including acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
The data could only capture the number of families or institutions that reached out to the poison control line; it cannot account for those who attempted suicide by means other than poison. It also can’t capture exactly how many children or families sought help from somewhere other than poison control, so the increase in suspected suicides could be higher.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has said the pandemic exacerbated mental health struggles that existed even prior to Covid-19. In 2021, the AAP called child and adolescent mental health a “national emergency.” Emergency room clinicians across the country have said they’ve seen a record numbers of children turning up with mental health crises, including attempts at suicide.
In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 14 years old and it was the third leading cause among 15 to 24 years, according to the CDC.
While the height of the pandemic is over, kids are still emotionally vulnerable, experts warn. Previous attempts at suicide have been found to be the “strongest predictor of subsequent death by suicide,” the study said.
“An urgent need exists to strengthen programs focused on identifying and supporting persons at risk for suicide, especially young persons,” the study said.
Research has shown that there is a significant shortage of trained professionals and treatment facilities that can address the number of children who need better mental health care. In August the Biden administration announced a plan intending to make it a lot easier for millions of kids to get access to mental and physical health services at school.
At home, experts said families should continue to check in with children to see how they are doing emotionally. Caregivers need to make sure they restrict children’s access to “lethal means,” like keeping medicines – even over-the-counter items – away from children, and keeping guns locked up.
Dr. Aron Janssen, the vice chair of clinical affairs at the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Lurie Children’s in Chicago, said he is not surprised to see such an increase in suspected suicides “but it doesn’t make it any less sad.”
Janssen, who did not work on this report, called the increase in suspected suicides “alarming.”
The rates of suicide attempts among kids had been increasing even prior to the pandemic, he said, “but this shows Covid really supercharged this as a phenomenon.
“We see a lot of kids who lost access to social supports increasingly isolated and really struggling to manage through day to day.”
Janssen said that he and his colleagues believe these suspected suicides coincide with increased rates of depression, anxiety and a sense of real dread about the future. One of the biggest concerns are that ” previous suicide attempts is the biggest predictor of later suicide completion,” Janssen said. “We really want to follow these kids over time to better understand how to support them to make sure that we’re doing everything within our power to help steer them away from future attempts.”
Janssen said it’s important to keep in mind that the vast majority of kids survived even the worst of the pandemic and did quite well. There are treatments that work, and kids who can get connected to the appropriate care – including talk therapy and in some cases medication – can and do get better.
“We do see that we do see improvement we do see efficacy of our care,” Janssen said. “We just have to figure out how we can connect kids to care.”