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Study: Adolescents’ suspected suicide attempts by poisoning rose 30% in midst of pandemic

April 20, 2023

Suspected suicide attempts by poisoning rose 30% among adolescents in 2021 compared to 2019, according to a new study.

“These findings suggest that the mental health of children and adolescents was affected by the pandemic, raising concerns about long-term consequences, especially given that previous attempted suicide has been found to be the strongest predictor of subsequent death by suicide,” researchers from the University of Virginia School of Medicine wrote in a new study in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Suicide is among the top causes of death for adolescents and young adults. The study adds to the growing body of evidence about the mental health struggles exacerbated by the pandemic, a time when youths were grappling with isolation, educational disruptions, financial insecurity and anxiety over the virus.

Researchers analyzed data from all 55 U.S. poison control centers from January 2016 through September 2022, looking at suspected suicide attempts involving adolescents ages 10-19 years.

The rate of suspected suicide attempts by poisoning grew from 209 per 100,000 adolescents in 2019 to 272 per 100,000 in 2021.

Broken down by age, the rates rose during that time by 73% among children ages 10-12 years, 49% for teens ages 13-15 years and 11% for teens ages 16-19 years.

Suspected suicide attempts by poisoning grew 37% for adolescent females from 2019 to 2021 while they increased 6% among males.

Acetaminophen was the most frequent substance involved in suspected suicide attempts by poisoning in 2021, and its use was up 71% compared to 2019. Ibuprofen was the second most common substance in 2021 followed by antidepressants sertraline and fluoxetine and the antihistamine diphenhydramine.

The data also showed a 29% increase in the rate of admission to a psychiatric facility in 2021 compared to 2019. Authors said suspected suicide attempts by poisoning continued to be elevated in 2022 and they called for comprehensive public health efforts involving families, schools and mental health professionals.

“An urgent need exists to strengthen programs focused on identifying and supporting persons at risk for suicide, especially young persons,” they wrote. “In addition, protective environments need to be created through the reduction of access to lethal means including promoting the safe storage of medications (e.g. over-the-counter drugs).”

The AAP has been sounding the alarm on mental health issues. In 2021, the AAP and its partners declared a national emergency in children’s mental health citing the serious toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of existing challenges. Last fall, they renewed their call for federal action.

In the Blueprint for Youth Suicide Prevention, the AAP and its partners recommend screening all youths ages 12 years and older for suicide risk and screening those 8-11 years when clinically indicated.  Additional AAP tools and resources are available below to help pediatricians address youth mental health concerns.



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