Dramatic Spike In Children Attempting Suicide
New study shows suicide-related hospital visits nearly double for kids
The number of children showing up in emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts and attempts is on the rise, especially during the school year.
According to a new study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids ages 5 to 17 were admitted to children’s hospitals for thinking about or trying to kill themselves twice as often in 2015 as 2008. Researchers at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt embarked on the study after noticing more pediatric patients being kept in the hospital with mental health issues.
They found that girls are attempting suicide more often than boys. They also found that suicide attempts were highest during the school year and decreased during the summer months.
“On average, during the eight years included in the study, only 18.5 percent of total annual suicide ideation and suicide attempt encounters occurred during summer months,” the research team wrote in the publication.
Half of the encounters examined in the study involved teens aged 15 to 17.
Numbers High at Home
This disturbing trend is also evident at Cook Children’s.
In 2016 and 2017, more than 390 children were seen by the Psychiatry department at Cook Children’s for an attempted suicide. The team was consulted on more than 1,040 total cases for issues including depression, anxiety and/or attempted suicide. The majority of the children who attempted suicide were female (317 female, 76 boys) and the average age was about 14 years old.
Also like the study, the majority of suicide attempts seen at Cook Children’s occurred during the school year.
Kristen Pyrc, M.D., co-medical director of Psychiatry at Cook Children’s, realizes suicide in children and adolescents is a difficult topic for most parents. But she stresses it’s one that can’t be ignored.
“As a mental health professional, my worst fear is a child prematurely ending his or her own life,” Dr. Pyrc said. “As a mother, it is hard to comprehend the profound grief families must feel in the wake of a suicide.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has updated their guidelines to recommend pediatricians routinely check for signs of depression in their young patients. The focus is to carefully screen patients ages 12 and over during annual checkups.
“I have found it is a good way to signal to kids and parents that we are open to talk about this and want them to ask us about it,” said Vanessa Charette, M.D., pediatrician at Cook Children’s Magnolia office in Fort Worth. “Even if nothing comes up, often a parent will return with the teen later wanting to talk about anxiety and depression.”
Suicide Attempts among Young Children
Another study published by the AAP found that younger children who die from suicide are more likely to do so impulsively while early adolescents tend to struggle with depression for some time then plan and carry out suicide. The researchers found that younger children were more likely to have experienced ADHD symptoms while early adolescents were more like to have experienced depression symptoms.
“What is important to realize is that in a young child, thoughts of suicide can occur without depression symptoms,” Dr. Pyrc said. “I have to wonder if some of the elementary-school-aged children meant to end their life, or if they act impulsively not fully appreciating the consequences. Unfortunately, the result is the same regardless of the child’s intent. A child’s life has ended prematurely, and family and friends are left with immense grief and a lifetime of regret.”
Dr. Pyrc said in childhood and adolescence, depression is more likely to present with irritability and angry outbursts than sadness. Young people are remarkably resilient and able to ‘compartmentalize,’ meaning they can feel deeply sad when alone but are able to socialize with their friends and appear happy on the surface.
Depression also manifests as changes in energy and sleep as well as social withdrawal, a drop in grades, or not engaging in activities they once enjoyed. If you see some of these signs and symptoms in your child, it may be time for an assessment. Starting with your pediatrician is a good first step because they can help assess for depression symptoms as well as rule out any medical problems that present similarly to depression.
Dr. Pyrc stresses it is vitally important to take children seriously when they say they want to die.
“I think it is easy to dismiss a statement like this from a child because it is hard to imagine that they fully understand what they are saying, but I would sure hate to be wrong,” she said. “I think it is important to believe our children and get help for them when they make suicidal statements. If you are concerned that a child may hurt him or herself or others, please seek professional help as quickly as possible. If you feel the threat is imminent, please take them to the Emergency Room for an assessment.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.
Signs of suicide include:
- Increased use of alcohol/drugs
- Preoccupied with death (writing, drawings)
- Talking about feelings of hopelessness
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Telling loved ones goodbye
- Decline in performance
- Giving prized possessions away
- Isolating and withdrawing
- Acting highly anxious or agitated
- Acting reckless and taking risks
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating
- Dramatic changes in personality and/or appearance
If you feel your child needs immediate help, please call 682-885-3917 for a referral into Cook Children’s Psychology department.
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Our licensed experts provide psychology and psychiatry services for families whose children and adolescents, ages 2 to 18, are experiencing behavioral, neurodevelopmental and emotional challenges such as depression and anxiety to attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders.
Because we are part of the Cook Children's Health System, we are also uniquely positioned to care for those children coping with mental health as well as chronic physical conditions or diagnoses.
Depending on the severity of a child's condition, we provide inpatient and partial hospitalization programs on the main campus of Cook Children's Medical Center and outpatient services in eight clinic settings across Tarrant and Denton counties.
Our services include:
- Diagnostic testing and evaluation
- Outpatient therapy and counseling
- Inpatient and partial hospitalization programs
- Medication management
- Family support groups