Over the last decade, the percentage of children and teens who've been admitted to US hospitals because of suicidal thoughts or actions has more than doubled. That's according to new research presented yesterday at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco.
Researchers came to that conclusion after reviewing emergency department and admission data from 32 children's hospitals across the country between 2008 and 2015. There were a total of 118,363 encounters in children between 5 and 17 years who received diagnoses of suicidality or serious self-harm. A little more than half of those who sought care were teens between the ages of 15 and 17, while 37 percent were between 12 and 14; children from 5 to 11 years old were about 13 percent of the total.
Next they looked at these numbers compared to the total number of visits to these 32 children's hospitals. In 2008, the rate of kids ages 5 to 17 in these hospitals who were diagnosed as suicidal was 0.67 percent; by 2015, that number had climbed to 1.79 percent. So, yes, the rate of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts more than doubled in this study, but it is a small amount of hospitalizations and it may not be representative of all hospitals across the country.
"We noticed over the last two, three years that an increasing number of our hospital beds are not being used for kids with pneumonia or diabetes; they were being used for kids awaiting placement because they were suicidal," Gregory Plemmons, an associate professor of clinic pediatrics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and author of the study, told CNN. He and his Vanderbilt Children's Hospital colleagues soon found their grim intuition was correct.
Plemmons also noted that the largest uptick was seen among girls, who went from representing 60 percent of suicide-related hospital visits in 2008 to 66 percent by 2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a year ago that suicide rates among girls ages 10 to 14 had tripled between 1999 and 2014, from 0.5 per 100,000 girls to 1.5 per 100,000. A few caveats: The study did not include completed attempts or the total number of actual suicides, and the increase could be partly because doctors are getting better at detecting signs of suicidal ideation. The study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The study also discovered seasonal variations: the lowest number of cases occurred in the summer, while the highest number occurred in spring and fall, which seems to sync up to the school calendar. Speaking with CNN, Plemmons suggested that school stress may be one contributing factor, though suicide attempts often have multiple, entangled causes.
The increasing suicide rates mirror those among adults, Plemmons said, but the research arrives amid a charged atmosphere around the problem of teen suicide. The recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has provoked strong criticism from counselors and mental health professionals for unrealistically portraying adults as uncaring and generally clueless about teenagers' problems, and for potentially glamorizing the idea of suicide among a vulnerable population. That could, the argument goes, make more teens consider self-harm.
On the notion of "suicide contagion," though, the science is far from settled. Studies suggest that media coverage of actual suicides by celebrities can be followed by an uptick in suicide rates, but the possible effect of fictional suicides is much murkier. Netflix renewed the show for a second season which will air in 2018.
What we do know is that the reasons teens attempt are complex and multifarious. We now also know that for the past decade, suicide rates have been moving in the wrong direction. Figuring out why is going to be the next big challenge.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.
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