For the first decade of the 2000s, suicide attempts by adolescents involving poisoning had remained flat. Then in 2010 and 2011, numbers began to surge, driven primarily by young girls.
Public health officials are struggling to figure out what happened.
A new study published this week in the Journal of Pediatrics highlights this disturbing trend in rates of suicide among adolescents involving poisoning.
Using information from U.S. poison centers, researchers compiled data for people ranging in ages 10 to 24 years old between the years 2000 and 2018.
In that nearly 20-year period, the scientists documented more than 1.6 million intentional suspected-suicide self-poisoning cases. Seventy-one percent of those were female.
During the first 10 years, the number and severity of cases stayed about the same or even decreased — the number of suicide attempts among 10 to 15 year olds actually went down during that time.
Then something went wrong.
“There’s been a change in suicide attempts in adolescents and young people,” Henry A. Spiller, MS, DABAT, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and first author of the study, told Healthline.
“Something happened to kids after 2010 and 2011. The rate of suicide attempts almost tripled in a very short period,” he said.
The numbers speak for themselves.
From 2010 and on, the report identifies a more than 300 percent increase in intentional suicide cases among females ages 10 to 12. For males in the same age group, there was a 150 percent increase.
The next largest increase is among 13 to 15 year olds. Female cases more than doubled (136 percent), while male cases decreased slightly (90 percent).
Females in the 16 to 18 age group also had significantly higher rates of increase than their male counterparts: a 75 percent increase versus 35 percent.
But every age group has been affected. Even the older age groups in the 19–21 and 22–24 categories saw modest increases, but nowhere near those of younger adolescents.
“This is hard data. These are kids in the ER who have attempted suicide. This isn’t an increase in depression or surveys of suicidal thoughts. These are kids who have taken that step,” said Spiller.
Self-poisoning is the leading method of suicide attempts in both males and females, but it has a relatively low fatality rate — less than 5 percent.
But that could be changing.
The report also details a rise in the number of serious medical outcomes from intentional poisoning — again, driven primarily by younger adolescents. In the youngest group, ages 10 to 12, the average number of serious outcomes climbed nearly 200 percent. For 13 to 15 year olds, it increased 121 percent.
Older groups saw significant increases in the severity of cases as well.
Despite a wealth of data, major questions remain for the researchers, including why younger females are so disproportionately affected and why the severity of outcomes is increasing.
There’s also no clear reason why all of this is happening. Is there some socioeconomic driver? Is it because of social media pressures? These questions can’t be answered yet.
“We’ve had changes in the demands that young people face both in their social worlds, in how they’re viewing themselves, and how they’re connected with other people. We know that things like hopelessness and lack of connection, and then access to lethal means and an awareness of how to end one’s life, are factors that contribute to suicidal behavior,” said John Ackerman, PhD, suicide prevention coordinator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
In the meantime, the message needs to be one of prevention and safety, Spiller and Dr. Ackerman agree.
The report doesn’t specifically note the cause of poisoning, but the researchers conveyed to Healthline that medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, were the most frequently used.
“We want to get information out to individuals that we need to do a better job of preventing access to poisons and medications, prescription and non-prescription,” Ackerman said.
He said parents need to be mindful of all medications they keep in the house, particularly those that are old or expired, which need to be disposed of safely. And if children are prescribed any medication, they need to be monitored closely to ensure it’s being used correctly.
Beyond the medicine cabinet, there are steps parents should take when it comes to adolescent mental health.
“We need to be having conversations with young people much earlier about emotional pain, specifically any thoughts of suicide. Adults need to be comfortable asking uncomfortable questions,” he said.
Don’t wait until there’s a crisis to have a serious talk.
If you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you suspect someone has ingested poison or overdosed, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number.