Emergency room visits for children who had thoughts of suicide or had attempted suicide have doubled in the past decade, according to a nationally representative study released Monday.
An analysis of United States emergency room data from 2007 to 2015 found that annual visits for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts among children age 5 to 18 nearly doubled – from 580,000 to 1.12 million.
And a significant portion of children who were taken to the emergency department were young: Approximately 43% of visits for suicidal thoughts or attempts were among children between the ages of 5 and 12.
“These numbers are very alarming,” study author Dr. Brett Burstein, an emergency department physician at the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, told HuffPost. “Not only was there doubling over the study period; we also found in this broad, nationally representative sample that there is a high proportion – more than had been previously identified – that are presenting at a very young age group.”
“This trend is likely accelerating,” Burstein added. “It is including younger children than thought previously and the sheer burden is very large.”
The new findings, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, mirror a 2018 study that found the proportion of suicide-related visits to children’s hospitals more than doubled from 2008 to 2015, from 0.66% of all visits in 2008 to more than 1.8% of all visits in 2015. That 2018 study found roughly 115,000 hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts during that time period, far lower than the most recent study.
The discrepancy is because the latest investigation looked at hospital records from general emergency departments that serve both adults and children, as opposed to children who were taken to emergency departments in pediatric hospitals.
“We asked the question, ‘Is this problem broader even still – or perhaps worse than this [previous study] may even suggest?'” Burstein said.
Suicide is now recognized as a national public health crisis. It is the second-leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 10 and 34.
It is not yet clear why suicidal thoughts and attempts appear to have increased so markedly over the past decade, and it is most likely that many factors are at play.
One possibility is that parents and health care providers are getting better at recognizing risk factors in their children and taking them in to get help, which would account for an uptick in emergency department visits. Yet only about 12 percent of the hospitalizations captured in the new study were for suicidal thoughts, while roughly 88 percent were for suicide attempts. That, to Burstein, suggests the increase in hospitalizations is likely not due to at-risk children being detected sooner. Instead, it suggests there is a distressing trend of increasing suicidal behavior among American children.
Likewise, there are no simple answers about how to address the growing crisis, though Burstein said parents should be aware of the potential risk signs in their own children, and society at large must do a better job of connecting children to community resources and ongoing care.
“There’s what we do on an individual basis,” said Burstein, “and then there’s what we do on a societal basis. Because this number is very worrisome.”