Suicide-Related ER Visits Double Among Kids, Survey Shows

The number of U.S. children ages 5-18 who attempted or seriously thought about suicide doubled over a nine-year period ending in 2015, according to a new study published this week. Researchers said their findings are startling and point to a critical need to increase mental health and other community-based services to reduce the risk of youth suicide.

The researchers, who used publicly available data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Care Survey administered annually by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said suicidal thoughts stem from a variety of causes, from more pressure to excel academically and socially to increased social media usage and cyberbullying.

Their analysis of data from 300 emergency room visits form 2007-2015 showed diagnoses related to suicide ideation or suicide attempts increased from 580,000 in 2007 to 1.12 million in 2015. The average age of the child was around 13, and 43 percent of visits were among children between the ages of 5 and 11.

Compared with the earlier study period from 1993-2008, the new results show an “apparent acceleration of pediatric suicide-associated visits” to U.S. emergency room visits, the authors wrote in the study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

“The numbers are very alarming,” Dr. Brett Burstein, the study’s lead author and a pediatric emergency room doctor at Montreal Children’s Hospital of McGill University Health Centre, told CNN.

Besides dealing with bullying and cyberbullying, kids today are “feeling more pressure to achieve, more pressure in school, and are more worried about making a living than in previous years,” Burstein said. So are their parents and caregivers, he said, contributing to a cycle of anxiety that passes down through generations.

No Bully, the country’s largest anti-bullying advocacy group, says that one out of three U.S. students has reported being bullied at some point. Cyberbullying, when mean kids target their victims online, is less common, but the number of kids who reporting the harassment consistently hovers around 25 percent, Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Justin Patchin told Patch.

Both types of bullying have terrible consequences for kids. Patchin said that while some kids do think about suicide or kill themselves in response to bullying, “it’s quite rare.”

“These suicides are headline making because they are rare,” Patchin said.

Cyberbullying is more difficult to confront, because it often happens after school at night, when kids already feel isolated, and cyberbullies may not face the same consequences as bullies at school, for example.

Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told CNN that no one particular issue is responsible for the increase in suicidal thoughts and attempts. Taken together, though, there’s a pattern, said Beresin, who was not involved in the study.

Burstein and his co-authors said more resources are needed in communities to reduce suicide risks.

The shortage of psychiatrists for adolescents is particularly acute, according to data from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that shows a “severe” shortage in all but a handful of states. On average, there are 17 psychiatrists available for every 100,000 children who need services.

If children and adolescents have greater access to psychiatric services, treatment sessions may result in a reduction in suicidal thoughts or attempts, Jennifer Mautone, a psychologist for the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told CNN. Mautone was not involved in the study.

Previous research published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that half of U.S. kids with mental health disorders, including depression and treatment, don’t get treatment.

The research also points to a need for more communication among the various agencies and systems tending to children’s mental health needs, Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Long School of Medicine at University of Texas Health San Antonio, told CNN. That can include not only hospitals and clinics, but also schools, social service agencies and juvenile justice systems.

“All of these systems that are supposed to be caring for children oftentimes are not talking to each other,” said Robles-Ramamurthy, who was not involved in the study. “A lot of times, kids fall through the cracks, and families are not getting the appropriate support they need.”

Between rising rates of mental health conditions among youth and the difficulty they have accessing care, Burstein isn’t optimistic.

“We are seeing an acceleration of this issue, and I worry that we have not yet seen the peak,” he told CNN.

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