A growing number of U.S. kids are attempting suicide by medication overdose — with the biggest increase seen among preteens, a recent study shows.
Researchers found that between 2015 and 2020, there was a 27% increase in overdose suicide or attempted suicide among U.S. children and teenagers. While teens accounted for most of those incidents, it was 10- to 12-year-olds who showed the biggest spike over time — with cases more than doubling.
The findings come at a time of growing concern over U.S. kids’ mental well-being. Recent government studies have pointed to a grim fact: The pandemic has worsened mental health issues that pre-dated it, including rising rates of depression, anxiety and behavioral problems among school-age kids.
A survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than one-third of high school students said they’d suffered poor mental health during the pandemic. Most worrisome of all, nearly 20% said they’d seriously considered suicide, while 9% had attempted it.
“Our kids are really struggling,” said Dr. Christine Crawford, associate medical director of the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness.
As the current findings highlight, the problem was “very real” even before the pandemic, noted Crawford, who was not involved in the new study.
“It’s hard for adults to imagine that a 10-year-old could be having thoughts of suicide,” she said.
But at that age kids often “don’t have the language” to understand and describe the emotions they are feeling, Crawford explained. So some turn to actions, including self-harm, to alleviate the pain, she said.
The findings, published recently in the journal Clinical Toxicology, are based on cases reported to U.S. poison control centers between 2015 and 2020. Those reports, which are submitted to centers voluntarily, do not capture all cases of suspected intentional overdose.
“But they allow us to look at trends,” said senior researcher Dr. Christopher Holstege, chief of medical toxicology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, in Charlottesville.
Holstege said the study was motivated by what he and his colleagues were seeing at their own medical center: an unusual number of younger kids being treated after attempting suicide by overdose.
“We wanted to see if this was a national trend,” Holstege said.
Based on the data, it is: Between 2015 and 2020, poison control centers received reports of more than 514,000 suspected suicides or suicide attempts by 6- to 19-year-olds. Over that period, reports rose by just under 27% overall.
While most of those young people survived, there were 276 deaths — with fatalities rising by 28.5% during the study period.
Most often, kids overdosed on ordinary painkillers, like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil). That’s not surprising, Holstege said, since many families have the medications on hand, and kids can easily buy them.
Many kids who overdose may not truly want to end their lives, Holstege noted.
“I think many cases are calls for help,” he said.
One question is: What ultimately happened to these half-million kids who overdosed? “What were their outcomes?” Holstege said. “Did they get the mental health care they needed?”
He noted that, in general, pediatric mental health services in the United States are limited and under strain.
As for what parents can do, Crawford said that kids may be depressed when they spend lots of time alone in their room and avoid social activities; lose interest in activities they once enjoyed; develop sleep problems or changes in eating habits; seem generally low-energy and down.
“But sometimes,” Crawford noted, “kids having thoughts of suicide appear to be fine.”
That’s, in part, why she thinks talking to kids about emotions from an early age is important. Crawford recommended parents check in with their kids regularly, asking how they are doing and about their friends.
“You’re planting the seed,” Crawford said. “You’re sending them the message that you’re there, and you’re a safe person for them to talk to.”
In cases where a child is depressed, Holstege also recommended locking away any medications in the house. Over-the-counter drugs may seem benign, he said, but in very high doses they can damage organs or prove fatal.
The Nemours Foundation has advice on helping kids deal with emotions.
SOURCES: Christopher Holstege, MD, chief, division of medical toxicology, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville; Christine Crawford, MD, MPH, associate medical director, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Arlington, Va., and assistant professor, psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine; Clinical Toxicology, March 4, 2022, online