Teen self-poisoning suicide attempts rise sharply, especially among girls

Family physicians say that as society becomes more isolating, and as social media, video and cellphone cameras become more accessible to adolescents, suicide attempts in this population have spiked.


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“There is no need to wait until there is a major crisis to talk about a plan to manage emotional distress. Actually, a good time to talk directly about suicide or mental health is when things are going well.”
John Ackerman, Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's Hospital


Rates of attempted suicide by self-poisoning among U.S. adolescents and young adults have more than doubled in the past decade. Among girls and young women, rates nearly tripled during that period.

That's according to a retrospective study from Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and the Central Ohio Poison Center. During the 19-year study period, more than 1.6 million intentional suspected-suicide self-poisoning cases in youth and young adults were reported to U.S. poison centers. Strikingly, more than 71 percent of those cases were among girls.

The increase occurred disproportionately in children and teens ages 10 to 18.

"The severity of outcomes in adolescents has also increased, especially in 10- to 15-year-olds," said study co-author Henry Spiller, M.S., director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Girls make more attempts

Previous research has shown that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24. And although boys die by suicide more frequently than girls, girls attempt suicide more than boys.

Self-poisoning is the leading cause of suicide attempts in general and the third leading cause of suicide in adolescents, with higher rates for both among females.

"Suicide in children under 12 years of age is still rare, but suicidal thoughts and attempts in this younger age group do occur, as these data show," said co-author John Ackerman, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and suicide prevention coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Check in regularly

Experts recommend parents check in regularly with their children, ask them directly how they are doing and whether they have ever had thoughts about ending their life. Asking these direct questions is even more critical if parents see warning signs of suicide in their children.

"There is no need to wait until there is a major crisis to talk about a plan to manage emotional distress," said Ackerman. "Actually, a good time to talk directly about suicide or mental health is when things are going well."

A good starting point for parents to open and maintain this dialogue is OnOurSleeves.org (nationwidechildrens.org), a resource Nationwide Children's Hospital launched last year to help families begin this important conversation, he added.

Family physician Kathleen Eubanks-Meng, D.O., of Lee's Summit, Mo., said that as society becomes more isolating, and as social media, video and cellphone cameras become more accessible to adolescents, suicide attempts in this population have spiked.

"Unfortunately, for adolescents today, something they said without thinking or a bad outfit choice, haircut or just figuring out how to live in their own skin is then displayed on the internet," she said. "It's not simply forgotten the next day at school, and they are no longer safe at home from their mistake or misgiving of the day."

She said adolescents are more susceptible to depression and the risk of suicide because their brains are still developing and impulse control is limited, with the frontal lobe not fully mature until about age 25.

"Their ability to process and consider actions and reactions to what they are seeing and feeling is unable to 'keep up' at the rate it is being delivered to their brain," she said.

Help for patients

If immediate help is needed to quell suicidal thoughts, adolescents should go to the ER and contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting "START" to 741-741.

If it's suspected an overdose has already occurred, call the Poison Help hotline at 1-800-222-1222 to connect to a local poison center.

Eubanks-Meng said family physicians need to drive home the importance of parents talking with their kids.

"Parents need to keep open lines of communication at all times," she said. "Be sure they have adults in their life that also mentor them, such as a pastor at church, school counselor, teacher, coach, or an aunt or uncle. Sometimes our teens don't want to talk to their parent, but they will talk to a trusted adult."

Parents also need to educate themselves on the signs of depression, anxiety and suicide, she added.

"Often, teens will display these signs differently than adults," Eubanks-Meng said. "Parents need to know what social media and apps are on their teen's cell phone, know how to use them and have access to them."

Source: American Academy of Family Physicians: aafp.org





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