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Big Rise in Suicide Attempts by U.S. Teen Girls During Pandemic

FRIDAY, June 11, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- The suicide attempt rate has leapt by as much as half among teenage girls during the coronavirus pandemic, a new government study shows.

Emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls between the ages of 12 and 17 increased by 26% during summer 2020 and by 50% during winter 2021, compared with the same periods in 2019, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. However, ER trips related to suspected suicide attempts among boys that same age and young adults aged 18 to 25 remained stable during the pandemic.

"The findings from this study suggest more severe distress among young females than has been identified in previous reports during the pandemic, reinforcing the need for increased attention to, and prevention for, this population," concluded the report published June 11 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The trend is consistent with past studies, the researchers noted.

"We are all at some degree of risk for mental health problems like depression and anxiety – and what elicits that underlying risk are often external variables: substances, trauma, illness or even medications, among others," said Dr. Timothy Sullivan, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Staten Island University Hospital, in New York City.

"But one of the most robust findings in the last 30 years of research on mood disorders is that disturbances in our social rhythms significantly increase the risk – even predict – the development of major depressive episodes," Sullivan said.

"This is why mental health experts have been concerned about the accumulating emotional burden caused by the effects of the pandemic on our habits and social interactions, and especially for children and adolescents for whom social interactions and peer involvement are crucial both for their healthy development and their emotional well-being," added Sullivan, who was not involved in the study.

Self-reported suicide attempts are consistently higher among teen girls than boys, and research prior to the pandemic indicated that girls had higher and increasing rates of emergency department visits related to suicide attempts than boys, the CDC scientists noted.

Young girls might have been more affected by the pandemic due to lockdowns that broke their connectedness to schools, teachers and friends, the study speculated.

During the pandemic, people also have had a harder time seeking mental health treatment, there have been reported increases in substance abuse, and families have been beset by health concerns and financial problems.

But it also might be that, stuck at home with their kids, parents have become more in touch and aware of their teen girls' troubling thoughts.

The researchers noted a 31% increase in the proportion of mental health-related emergency department visits that occurred among teenagers in 2020, compared with the year before.

At the same time, there's been no significant increase in suicide deaths among teenage girls during the pandemic.

"By spending more time at home together with young persons, adults might have become more aware of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and thus been more likely to take their children to the [emergency department]," the researchers explained.

For the study, CDC researchers led by Ellen Yard analyzed data from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program, a collaboration of federal, state and local public health agencies to collect electronic health data from emergency departments, urgent care centers and hospitals.

The researchers examined trends in emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts between Jan. 1, 2019 and May 15, 2021, among people aged 12 to 25.

According to the American Psychological Association, some of the warning signs of teen suicide include:

  • Changes in appearance or hygiene

  • Increased alcohol or drug use

  • Sudden drop in grades

  • Social withdrawal

  • Talking about suicide or preoccupation with death

  • Risky or reckless behaviors

  • Self-harming

  • Talk about hopelessness or having nothing to live for

  • Researching suicide methods or acquiring potential weapons

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is 1-800-273-8255.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about teen suicide prevention.

SOURCES: Timothy Sullivan, MD, chair, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Staten Island University Hospital, New York City; Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 11, 2021

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