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Youth Suicide Attempts Have Dramatically Increased, New Data Shows

"Something is happening in adolescents that hasn't happened before," says an author of the study that looked at poisonings.

A new study released Wednesday offers yet more evidence that suicide attempts among children in America have risen dramatically, suggesting the country is in the throes of a disturbing trend of increased youth distress.

Using data from the National Poison Data System, researchers found more than 1.6 million cases of 10- to 24-year-olds attempting to kill themselves by poisoning from 2000 to 2018. More than 70% of the suicide attempts by poisoning were in young women.

And there was a significant spike in the number and rate of suicide attempts among 10- to 15-year-olds over the past decade.

“From 2000 to 2011, it was relatively steady, but then after 2010 or ’11, there was a dramatic change,” study author Henry Spiller, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center, told HuffPost.

“Depending on the age group, it goes up 200 to 300 percent,” he continued. “Something is happening in adolescents that hasn’t happened before — and that isn’t what was occurring in the 1990s or 2000s.”

Although the study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, does not establish causation, Spiller and his co-researchers believe that the dramatic increase likely has much to do with the rise of smartphones and social media, and the profound shifts in how teenagers spend their time and connect with others day-to-day.

“These are greater than a million children we’re looking at, so we want to make sure parents understand that, yes, we know it was tough when you were 14, but this is a little different. For pediatricians who trained in the 1990s and 2000s, they didn’t see this either,” Spiller said.

The new findings join a spate of alarming research documenting rising rates of suicide, which is the second-leading cause of death among Americans ages 10 to 24.

Earlier this month, a national study that relied on emergency room records found that suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts nearly doubled from 2005 to 2017. Though death by suicide is often thought of as a concern for teens, more than 40% of the hospital visits were for children ages 5 to 12.

Research also suggests that many parents are in the dark. A study published earlier this year found that up to half of parents whose children have considered suicide have no idea.

“We definitely need to have upstream approaches to help kids manage their emotional pain before they get to the point where they’re looking at medications or substances to deal with that,” John Ackerman, suicide prevention coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, told HuffPost. Ackerman is an author of the new study.

While addressing the youth suicide crisis and better supporting mental health requires a multi-pronged approach, Ackerman said, he thinks it is important for parents to be aware of the recent increase — but without spreading alarm. That is because there are practical steps caregivers can take to try to mitigate their own children’s risk, like limiting access to medications in the home by storing them safely and monitoring them constantly.

It is also important to learn the warning signs and recognize that even young children can have thoughts of suicide, Ackerman emphasized.

“Parents need to have really direct, emotional conversations with their kids,” he said. “We know it is a myth that if you ask kids about suicide that you will put that idea into their minds.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.