Experts issue new cautions as hospitals and ERs treat a spike in teen suicides

suicide-300x154Moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, and coaches all may need to increase even more the attention and concern they devote to teen-agers, especially young women, as hospitals and emergency rooms report dramatic increases in their treatment of youthful suicides.

Multiple news organizations reported that, as the New York Times noted, “the proportion of emergency room and hospital encounters for …  suicide-related diagnoses almost tripled, from 0.66 percent in 2008 to 1.82 percent in 2015. And the rate of increase was highest among adolescent girls.”

NPR reported: “Children ages 5 to 17 visited children’s hospitals for suicidal thoughts or attempts about twice as often in 2015 as in 2008.”

And the Wall Street Journal, citing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that: “Suicide was the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds in 2016, up from third place in earlier years …”

Besides the CDC, disturbing new data on young suicides has come from a study by Vanderbilt University researchers, published in the medical journal “Pediatrics.” They scrutinized federal data to find “115,856 encounters for suicide ideation and attempts in emergency departments at 31 children’s hospitals. Nearly two-thirds of those encounters were girls. While increases were seen across all age groups, they were highest among teens ages 15-17, followed by ages 12-14. Just over half of the encounters were children ages 15-17; another 37 percent were children ages 12-14; and 12.8 percent were children ages 5-11. Seasonal variation was also seen consistently across the period, with October accounting for nearly twice as many encounters as reported in July.”

What’s going on? The researchers and experts quoted by various news outlets said there may be a glimmer of good news in the otherwise glum data: Young people and the grown-ups who care about them may be getting youths with suicidal thoughts or behaviors help more readily than before, leading to the uptick in reported cases. Suicide, just to be clear, is increasing among Americans of all ages, and the nation clearly needs significant increases in its accessible, affordable mental health services.

But it’s also true that too many kids, especially, are too stressed out, anxious, and depressed. Anxiety is a rising issue for the young, and depression has become a sufficiently big concern that pediatricians have pushed for universal screening for it.

Experts say today’s youth may be under excessive pressure, especially in too many households where young people are pushed to excel in extracurricular activities (sports, music, dance, and the like) or in academics so they can get into elite colleges and universities.

There’s also a contemporary factor that worsens young people’s views of themselves and the world, adding to their stresses and strain: Electronic devices, text messaging, and social media, whether in words (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) or images (e.g. Snapchat and Instagram). These modern media can cause the young to confront near 24/7 peer pressure, unfair judgments, and outright, destructive bullying.

In my practice, I see the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and the awful injuries that can be inflicted on babies, children, and the young.  Grown-ups can offer key perspective and wise counsel to young people but they can be difficult audiences, as they stretch and rebel as part of the natural processes to discover themselves. It’s great to create openings with teens, by listening more and maybe advising less, or gently, if possible.

Still, young folks are among our most precious resources, and, if necessary, we shouldn’t hesitate to step in to help them stay healthy and well, including by putting them on restricted use of electronics and social media  ─ a major and sensible step, of course, while they’re learning to drive.

We have a huge distance to go, too, to ensure girls and young women not only get launched well but that the world offers them a great and fair shake throughout their lives. It’s unacceptable that societal biases put them in such bad stead that too many of them harm themselves, through substance abuse, depression, anxiety, “cutting” and other self-injury, including thoughts of and attempts at suicide. With federal officials also reporting that younger women, those in their 20s and 30s, are delaying pregnancy and delivering fewer babies than in many recent times as they struggle to juggle careers and personal lives, Americans may be getting a signal, loud and clear, as to just how major the changes we need to make will be.

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