More Young People Are Attempting Suicide by Self-Poisoning

SFor a long period, suicides in young adults have been increasing. Federal data shows that suicide rates in America have increased 57% among people aged between 10 and 24 years old, from 2000 to 2018. The journal now has a study that examines this issue.Clinical Toxicology has looked more closely at a particular method of attempted suicide—self-poisoning—and turned up some disturbing results: From 2015 to 2020, suicide attempts by ingesting toxic substances or overdosing on medications soared by 26% among people ages 6 to 19.

The research, led by Dr. Jennifer Ross, a medical toxicologist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, relied on figures from the National Poison Data System, which aggregates information from the country’s 55 state and territorial poison control centers. From 2015-2020, there were 514,350 calls to poison control centers involving children ages 6-19 who, according to the control centers’ guidelines for suspected suicide attempts, had “an exposure resulting from the inappropriate use of a substance for self-harm or self-destructive” reasons.

More than 75,000 cases were reported in 2015 This number rose in five years consecutively, reaching a peak of more than 93,000 in 2020. “We began to notice an increase in younger aged children attempting suicide by acute overdoses in our clinical practice at [the University of Virginia Health System],” said Dr. Christopher Holstege, chief of the division of medical toxicology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and a co-author of the paper, in a statement. “We were disturbed at our institutional numbers and decided to perform research on the national numbers which confirmed that this increase was not just a local issue, but a national issue.”

Each age segment was not equally affected. Self-poisonings rose the most among children aged 10-12 years old, jumping 109% over the 5-year period. The increase in self-poisonings among 13-15 year olds was 30%, 6-9 year olds 28%, and 16-19 year olds 18%. Nearly 78% of all cases were attributed to girls. The half-million plus cases were studied by researchers and included 276 deaths. Nearly 15,000 cases had life-threatening or permanent disabilities.

Most young people used easy-to-find and accessible substances. The most commonly abused substance was acetaminophen, followed by ibuprofen, then atypical antipsychotics—like aripiprazole—which are increasingly prescribed not only for psychosis, but also for more-common cases of depression.

It was beyond the scope of the study to explain what’s behind the troubling trend. The American Academy for Pediatrics highlighted multiple reasons youth attempt suicide, including increasing disparities in mental health care access and easier access to self-harm tools such as guns or medication at home.

The authors of the new study urge parents and caregivers to be alert to the growing problem.“We need to be vigilant for the warning signs associated with suicide risk in our children,” Holstege said. “Our study is one of a number that demonstrates that we are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis in younger age groups. As a society, we must commit more resources to the mental health needs of our children.”

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