This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
A new study examining suicide attempts in children found that self-poisoning is increasing, especially in girls age 10 to 15. Experts say that understanding this can help them better prevent death by suicide and suicide attempts.
“There’s a shift in increase in poison overdoses since the 2011 time period. These shifts are very obvious and visibly driven by that 10 to 15-year-old girl group,” John Ackerman, an author of the study, told TODAY. “But the more important part of this story is what we can do differently to keep kids safe.”
The study, which appears in the Journal of Pediatrics, looks at more than 1.6 million cases of self-poisoning from 2000 to 2018. While there was a decline in suicide attempts in children 10-15 from 2000 to 2010, there was an increase of self-poisoning suicide attempts among girls in that age group from 2011 to 2018.
“We need to make parents aware that we can’t wait until the end of high school to have this conversation about mental health and suicide,” said Ackerman, the Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Suicide rates have increased 24% overall and these recent findings indicate the worrying trend affects people of all ages.
While the study did not look at types of poisons people used, Ackerman said many turn to medication. This means parents should lock up prescription and over-the-counter drugs and poison like they would any other lethal weapons.
“We always want to be aware of safe storage practices of all different types of medicine,” Ackerman explained.
The study does not identify why suicide attempts are increasing in younger children, but the authors do note it is occurring during a time when people are increasingly reliant on social media and opioid addiction has became more commonplace.
“It can be hard to go through these stats," Ackerman said. "We have so many ways to intervene and prevent suicide attempts."
Warning signs in children.
It is important for parents to address mental health and suicide because children rarely confide in adults.
“Only a small fraction of kids will proactively tell their parents they are struggling with suicidal thoughts,” Ackerman explained.
Children don't often leave notes and the warning signs vary slightly. Signs include:
- Acting really sad or irritable
- Avoiding activities they typically enjoy
- Acting withdrawn
- Taking risks
- Declining school performance
- Complaining about being tired of having stomach aches (common in young children)
- Talking to friends about death
- Feeling hopeless or that they are a burden
- Expressing emotional pain
- Looking for ways to die by suicide
Helping children with mental health.
In some ways, the study reinforces what experts have understood about death by suicide and gives them tools to address it. But properly storing medications is just one way to protect children.
“I don’t want parents to say we will just lock this away and it is good enough,” Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist, who was not a part of the study, told TODAY. “That is something you need to talk to a professional about.”
Many parents balk at the thought that young children might be experiencing mental health challenges but even young children can struggle.
“With mental health issues there are no lower age limits. They can be severely depressed or anxious at a young age,” said Cadieux, who works at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
And, Ackerman said that children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to act more impulsively and are at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
That's why all parents should do mental health check-ins, especially if they notice any warning signs. Cadieux recommends parents use age appropriate language to connect with their children, such as:
- Are you having thoughts about no longer being alive?
- Are you thinking of hurting yourself?
While many parents fear that discussing suicide with their children will give them the idea that’s untrue.
“We are not going to start making them think about suicide,” Cadieux explained.
She also stresses that parents should avoid using stigmatizing language. Saying something like “don’t do something crazy” could make a child feel bad she’s feeling depressed or thinking of suicide. It’s essential that parents listen and don’t try to talk over their children, too.
“We need to hear what they say and listen to their feelings. We don’t want to argue with them,” she said. “It is not about trying to convince them that their feelings are wrong.”
If children do express thoughts of dying or other mental health distress, parents should seek help.
"As a parent it is hard not to internalize some sort of blame and think, 'maybe I did something wrong,'" Ackerman said. "Know that it is absolutely fine to get help."