According to a new study, there has been an increase in children being seen in emergency rooms for suicidal ideas. This increase began even before the Covid-19 pandemic which saw record-breaking demand for psychological services for children.
The effects of the pandemic brought renewed attention to suicide among teens and young kids. The Biden administration referred to the recent spike in suicide attempts, depression, and anxiety among children as an “unprecedented mental crisis”.
The data was taken from Illinois hospitals and published in Pediatrics on Monday. Researchers looked at how many children aged 5-19 sought suicide help in emergency rooms between January 2016 to June 2021.
There were 81,051 visits to the emergency department by young people who were suffering from suicidal ideation during that time. A quarter of those visits resulted in hospital stays.
According to the study, suicidal thoughts were a major cause of visits to the emergency room. This increased by 59% between 2016-17 and 2019-21. The number of cases where suicidal ideation was the primary diagnosis rose from 34.6% to 44.3%.
Between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020, the number of suicidal thoughts-related hospitalizations grew by 57%.
It just shows how mental health concerns were a real problem before the pandemic. We saw a huge increase in emergency department visits for children of all ages in 2019, which is very concerning,” stated Dr. Audrey Brewer, a Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medical researcher and an attending physician in advanced pediatrics at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. We saw more children than usual that we wouldn’t have expected to have issues with suicidal ideation. We saw 5-year-olds.
“To see them presenting to emergency departments for mental health or suicide-ideation-related visits is very concerning.”
Brewer believes that the real numbers may be much higher than the study suggests. This is because not all children with thoughts of suicide visit the emergency department.
Experts agree that it is not an isolated problem in any state.
Dr. Nicholas Holmes is the senior vice president and chief operating officer of Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego. He said that the rise in children seeking treatment in his health system was “profound.”
Holmes, who wasn’t involved in the research, said that in the past nine years we had seen about one to two patients per day who were experiencing a behavioral crisis. Now we see 20 or more.
Rady, which is the West Coast’s largest pediatric hospital, has an inpatient child and adolescent psychiatrist unit.
Holmes’ hospital is collaborating with county health and social services to create a campus for pediatric-focused mental health and behavioral health. The new facility will double Rady’s behavioral health unit and provide more services to children who don’t require hospitalization but still need therapy.
Others in the US are not as fortunate. Research shows that there is a shortage of beds nationwide for children who require mental health care. A federal survey in 2020 found that there are 30% fewer residential treatment facilities than it was in 2012.
A significant rise in suicide risk factors has been linked to the care crisis. One in three high school students, and half of all female students, reported feeling persistent sadness and hopelessness in 2019, up from 40% in 2009. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was an increase of 36% in suicide attempts among students.
Although the new study can’t pinpoint exactly why young people are more likely to seek help for suicidal thoughts, Brewer believes it could be a combination.
She said that many of the suicidal children in the hospital had mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
Children are also responding to trauma in their lives, and social influences on health, such as poverty, historical trauma, marginalization, trouble in school, bullying online, and lack of access to counseling and therapy.
Brewer stated that adults can intervene if a child thinks about suicide. Brewer advises caregivers to look out for signs of anxiety and aggression in their child, as well as problems at school or with friends.
They may be agitated or have trouble sleeping. Brewer stated that irritability, being more withdrawn, and isolating are just a few of the many things we will often think about.
It’s never a bad idea to ask a pediatrician for help with a struggling child.
Parents need to be able to listen to their children and have a conversation with them. Brewer stated that it is important to try to understand and relate with your children and foster positive relationships.
She expressed her hope that mental health care will be less stigmatized, and more accessible to children.
Brewer stated that “we need to create more of a plan to support all types in different ways” and to focus on traumas and other social influences on health. “We must ensure that more children have safe places where they can grow and thrive.”