One in three preteens screened positive for suicide risk during hospital emergency room visits, according to a small but alarming recent study by the National Institutes of Health.
Researchers examining youth suicide risk screening at three urban children’s hospitals last year wanted to see how frequently preteens ages 10 to 12 are screened and the results.
They found 23 preteens were positive for suicide risk out of the 79 preteens screened, according to the study by National Institute of Mental Health, part of NIH.
The hospitals involved are Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; Children’s Hospital Boston; and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
“Typically, suicidal thoughts and behaviors are seen in older teens,” Lisa Horowitz, a clinical scientist in the study, said in a news release. “It was troubling to see that so many preteens screened positive for suicidal risk, and we were alarmed to find that many of them had acted on their suicidal thoughts in the past.”
According to the screening study published online at Hospital Pediatrics, one in five of the preteens who visited the ER for psychiatric issues had previously attempted suicide.
More than 54 percent of the preteens who screened positive for suicide were in the emergency rooms with psychiatric issues, and 7 percent had gone to the ER for a physical complaint.
David Fuentes, a licensed clinical psychologist with the David Lawrence Center, a comprehensive mental health organization in Collier County, Florida, said the NIH study is on target.
“It is actually quite alarming how often teens are having those suicidal thoughts,” Fuentes said. “The majority of them have no plan but the thought is quite often.”
There is often a disconnect between teens who say they are not depressed and how they answer other questions that are indicative of suicide risk, such as “my life is terrible” or “I have no purpose,” he said.
“It’s pretty common,” he said.
Screening Collier County children and teens for behavioral health issues is done at pediatric practices because of an initiative spearheaded by Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida. The program involves having kids screened for behavioral health during medical appointments.
In 2018, Healthcare Network performed behavioral health screenings for 5,141 children ages 12-17 years old, according to the nonprofit organization.
The Joint Commission, the accreditation organization for hospitals, requires emergency rooms to screen patients for suicide risk who present with mental health or behavioral issues, said Dr. Catherine Marco, a spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians who works at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio.
The Joint Commission does not require universal screening of all patients for suicide risk, but Marco said it has become common practice.
Teenagers face a lot of stress at school, socially and in their home lives; the suicide screening is helpful to get them to treatment resources, Marco said. Often, teenagers and others are candid with their answers.
In Florida, 20 suicide deaths were reported among kids ages 10 to 14 in 2016, according to the state Department of Children and Families.
Suicides increased to 276 deaths that same year among those age 15 to 24 in Florida, according to DCF’s annual Suicide Prevention Coordinating Council.
Betsy Novakovich, administrator of emergency services with the NCH Healthcare System in Collier, said NCH screens all patients for suicide risk, regardless of the reason they come to the emergency rooms.
“As a result of this process we have identified patients of all ages, including children, who are clearly experiencing depression and are in need of further assistance,” she said.
Social media influences and the prevalence of bullying are two culprits for why many preteens and older teens struggle with well-being, said Fuentes, with David Lawrence.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24 in the U.S., yet more young people survive suicide attempts than die, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Each year, about 157,000 people aged 10 to 24 are treated in emergency rooms for self-inflicted injuries.
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