New data shows how many young children have attempted suicide.
A growing number of children and teenagers across the country are trying to hurt or kill themselves by using over-the-counter or prescription medications, researchers have found.
This trend is reflected in new data published by the New Jersey Poison Control Center.
According to a press release issued this week, 100 cases of preteens attempting suicide by drug overdose have been reported to the center since January 2018.
Among those cases, 68 were children who were 12 years old. Twenty were 11 years old, seven were 10 years old, and three were 9 years old.
In nearly 80 percent of the reported cases, the preteen was a girl.
“These are only cases that we at the New Jersey Poison Control Center got a call about,” Bruce Ruck, PharmD, RPH, managing director of the center, told Healthline.
Additional cases of attempted suicide by overdose in preteens have likely occurred in the state but gone unreported.
Attempted suicide by overdose is a growing issue among youth, not only in New Jersey but also in other parts of the country.
When researchers from Nationwide Children’s Hospital (NCH) studied this issue on a national level, they found the number of children and teens who attempt suicide by self-poisoning is growing. The rate has increased significantly over the past 10 years, particularly with girls.
“From 2010 to 2018, there was a 141 percent increase in suicide attempts by self-poisoning among 10- to 15-year-olds,” John Ackerman, PhD, co-author of the national study and suicide prevention coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at NHC, told Healthline.
“Our data indicate that the rate of increase among young girls was much higher than for boys,” he added.
While boys are more likely to complete suicide, girls are more likely to attempt it.
This may be explained in part by the different methods used to attempt suicide.
Boys tend to use methods that are more fatal on average, such as shooting or hanging.
Girls tend to use methods that are less fatal on average, such as self-poisoning.
According to Ackerman, it’s important to take all cases of attempted suicide seriously, including attempted suicide by self-poisoning.
“There’s a danger in taking intentional self-poisoning lightly or suggesting it is a cry for help, when any suicide attempt is a reflection of intense emotional pain and at least some desire to end one’s life,” he said.
“Our data also suggest that the consequences of these attempts are increasing in severity,” Ackerman continued.
As a growing number of girls have attempted suicide by self-poisoning, a growing number have died by suicide.
More youth in total are attempting and dying by suicide, and girls account for a growing share of them.
Henry Spiller, MS, lead author of the national study and director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at NCH, wants people to know that help is available.
“There are a number of studies that show that after a first attempt, if you get help, the likelihood of a second-attempted or a completed suicide goes down dramatically,” he said.
More research is needed to understand why the rate of attempted suicide is growing in youth — and why the rate is increasing more rapidly with girls.
Some experts believe that changes in how youth connect online might be playing a part.
“We believe there may be a significant association with changes in social media or smartphones,” Spiller said.
“You can look back at this data before 2000 and it’s relatively flat,” he continued, “and then suddenly around 2010 and 2011, when we had the increasing introduction of smartphones and social apps, there’s a significant rise in attempted suicide.”
Social media and other online platforms can enable youth to connect with peers, share their perspectives, and learn about the perspectives of others.
But the internet can also expose youth to cyberbullying, information about how to die by suicide, and other potential risks, some of which might disproportionately affect girls.
“At this challenging stage of life where one is forming her own identity and sense of self-worth, the constant input from others in the forms of clicks, likes, and shares may be problematic,” Ackerman said.
“We also know excessive phone use interferes with sleep, physical activity, and reduces face-to-face contact, all of which are critical to healthy emotional and psychological functioning,” he added.
To help reduce the risk of suicide, it’s important to provide mental health support to those who show warning signs of suicidal thoughts or behavior.
“Although it can feel like a complex or scary issue for parents, doctors, and other adults, we should not be afraid to talk openly and directly about suicide when we are concerned about a young person showing warning signs,” Ackerman said.
“For parents and teachers, we can’t overstate the importance of checking in emotionally with kids at very young ages and giving them tools to express what they’re struggling with and the confidence to speak with a trusted adult when they are in distress,” he continued.
Ackerman also encourages parents and other caregivers to help youth set healthy boundaries around their social media and technology use.
It’s also important to limit their access to medications or other means of self-harm, such as firearms.
“When it comes to self-poisoning, access to prescription and nonprescription medications is a big deal,” Ackerman explained.
“Many families do not engage in safe storage practices of medications, which can be very problematic,” he added.
Youth who attempt suicide by self-poisoning often use over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs that are accessible at home.
“If over-the-counter medication is what’s available, that’s what’s being taken. If mom’s antidepressant is available, that’s what’s being taken. If dad’s arthritis medicine is available, that’s what they’re taking,” Ruck said.
“They’re taking what they have access to,” he added.
To lower the risk of accidental or intentional overdose in children and teenagers, Ruck and Ackerman recommend locking up medications and safely disposing of pills that are no longer needed.
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text START to 741741. If someone is experiencing a case of suspected self-poisoning, you can seek guidance from Poison Control at 800-222-1222. In the case of a medical emergency, call 911 or seek care from a local hospital.