More evidence of the mental health and suicide crisis among young children

A new study that analyzed 20 years of data shows suicidal drug ingestions rose dramatically, especially among pre-teens. For adolescents, the rate of increase was 2.4 times higher over two decades, while children ages 10 to 12 saw a 4.5-fold increase.

SHARE More evidence of the mental health and suicide crisis among young children
Children’s mental health, and an alarming increase in suicides, is a crisis adults must address.

Children’s mental health, and an alarming increase in suicides, is a crisis adults must address.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Suicide continues to plague the United States, and it’s hitting our youngest citizens especially hard, according to a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Researchers looked at data collected over the last two decades by the National Poison Data System for children ages 6 to 18 who were poisoned through ingesting drugs — whether prescription, over-the-counter or illicit drugs. They identified cases of suspected suicide as opposed to accidental misuse of drugs.

The findings are distressing. The report is yet another sign of the crisis in children’s mental health, which three major pediatric groups declared a national emergency last fall.

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According to the study, suicidal drug ingestions rose dramatically between 2000 and 2020, especially among pre-teens. For adolescents, the rate of increase was 2.4 times, while children ages 10 to 12 saw a 4.5-fold increase.

Study co-author Dr. David Sheridan told HealthDay, a health news service, that mental health concerns are a growing issue in emergency department patients. That’s something other pediatricians, including here in Chicago, have said as well — with the increase in suicides the most alarming trend.

“We’ve just seen rapidly escalating numbers of adolescents coming in with suicidal thoughts,” said Sheridan, a pediatric emergency room doctor in Oregon. “And it seems like we’ve been seeing younger patients as well.”

Advocates for suicide prevention note that teen suicide was the second-leading cause of death before the pandemic. Since COVID-19 hit, the problem has led to a rise in emergency room visits of 10- to 14-year-olds, and even children as young as 5.

“We’re in a crisis,” Susan Tellone, clinical director of the New Jersey-based Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, told us.

Experts blame pervasive social media, where bullying and other negative behavior and images are common. Meanwhile, young people face intense pressure to succeed in the classroom and on the athletic field. Parents and other caregivers are under tremendous strain, too, which makes family life tough.

“So many children are being raised by parents struggling with mental health [issues] themselves,” Tellone says. “Now is the time to break the stigma and shame of talking about mental health.”

Her advice to adults is something other experts have told us, and worth repeating: Talk openly with young people, especially young boys, who are less likely to express their feelings because of societal norms. Ask about the ups and downs they may be experiencing.If the situation is serious, it’s OK to ask a child if they are having thoughts of dying or suicide.

Adults need to teach children how to self-regulate their emotions, through breathing or taking moments to pause. Children need to learn at a very early age how to problem-solve, Tellone says.

Schools, too, have a role to play. They must provide adequate staffing — more social workers and counselors — to meet children’s social and emotional needs, especially in lower-income communities of color where children’s mental health is particularly fragile.

More evidence, and a duty to help

Every 11 minutes, a child between the ages of 10 and 19 takes their life somewhere in the world.

One in four children are living with a parent who has a mental health condition.

More than 1 in 7 youth ages 10 to 19 is living with a mental health condition — and half of those children have conditions that manifest before age 14.

Those statistics are why “we need to promote good mental health early on,” Zeinab Hijazi, senior mental health technical advisor for UNICEF, told us. “Parents need to be educated, they need to understand [the] signals that their child might not be doing well [and be] taking care of their own mental health.”

Suicide is preventable. Parents, other loved ones, teachers, neighbors — all adults have a particular duty to help the children they interact with see that life is worth living.

Any one of us could end up playing a pivotal role in helping a struggling young person.

It could save their life.

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