A new study that shows adolescents are attempting suicide by overdose at increasing rates is further evidence that the pervasive public health problem needs more conversation and money, experts say.
This is contained in the report, published recently in The Journal of Pediatrics, by researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and the Central Ohio Poison Centre.
It was founded that medication overdose suicide attempts have more than doubled since 2000, and more than tripled for girls.
“I think this all adds up to an opportunity to educate and build awareness and find out what solutions are out there for this.
“We have so many opportunities across our system to do better. This should be a call to mobilise resources,’’ said John Ackerman, Suicide Prevention Coordinator.
The stakes are high. Joanne Meyers, of Northfield, Illinois, knows firsthand – her daughter Elyssa died by suicide at age 16 in 2004.
In 2006, Meyers formed Elyssa’s Mission, a Northbrook-based nonprofit that works with about 200 schools in Illinois, Ackerman, also clinical psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and one of the authors of the new study, said.
It trains staff and teaches students about the warning signs of suicide and how to get help for themselves or their friends.
Students are then screened at the end of the programme and referred for help.
“It’s important to me that we talk about it because talking about suicide is the only way we’ll save lives.
“We didn’t know back then,” Meyers said.
In the past few years, Meyers said more schools seem interested in suicide awareness, and in 2018 the group added 50 new schools.
Suicide prevention in schools is an important part of a public health solution to this increasing problem, said Ackerman.
Suicide screenings should also be commonplace at primary care physicians’ offices, he said, and parents should know what resources are available.
“We need a public health approach … like we’ve had with cancer, with HIV, with motor vehicle accidents,” he said.
“There’s a clear gap in how often we directly confront the issue of suicidal influence and behavior. It’s an uncomfortable topic that demands adults and young people to become comfortable.”
In the latest study, Ackerman and other researchers analysed data reported to the poison centre from 2000 through November 2018, finding more than 1.6 million suspected suicide attempts by self-poisoning in children and young adults, ages 10 to 24.
They found that from 2000 to 2010 there was a decrease in suicide attempts by overdose among 10 to 15-year-olds, but then a “dramatic and persistent” increase from 2011 to 2018, ranging from more than 120 per cent to nearly 300 per cent.
The increase was driven mostly by females, who experts say tend to attempt suicide more often than males – using overdose most often as a method – but do not die from suicide attempts as often as males.
The study also showed an increase in suicide attempts by overdose among 16 to 18-year-olds during the 19-year period, but no significant difference for those 19 and older.
While researchers could not explain why these suicide attempts are increasing in young people – or why there appears to be a shift around 2011 – experts point out a rise in social media usage and the opiate crisis as possible explanations.
Study authors also say more research is needed, and that reasons for suicide are often complex and multifaceted.
In another recent study, also from Nationwide Children’s Hospital, researchers noted a spike in suicide deaths among 10 to 17-year-olds in the month following the March 31, 2017, release of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.”
The series was widely panned by suicide prevention experts as glorifying suicide.
The research is the latest in a string of evidence in recent years showing suicide is on an upward trend, including last year’s report from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that showed suicide was a leading cause of death across the U.S., with increasing rates in nearly every state.
Even with improved mental health awareness in recent years, Ackerman said, “we need more hands on deck, more investment in policy.
“The infrastructure on how we support at-risk kids is pretty weak.
“There’s a lot of stigma and a lot of shame. We make people who are vulnerable jump through a lot of hoops to get help.”
Funding is a barrier, he pointed out, with local nonprofits doing much of the suicide prevention work in their communities.
“There has to be more money put into this,” said Jonathan Singer, Associate Professor of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago and the president-elect of the Washington, DC-based American Association of Suicidology.
The funding should match the need, he said, noting that research shows suicide is the second highest leading cause of death among young people, ages 10-24.
“If we had a billion for suicide prevention research and intervention efforts, then what we could do is actually fund research that answers some of the questions like, is this really a social media thing or not.
“We could pay to have somebody dedicated in each school district … who is a suicide prevention coordinator,” Singer said.
According to him, if suicide prevention efforts and screenings are increased in schools, communities will need more services to treat children identified as needing help.
At Elyssa’s Mission, educators reached no fewer than 43,000 students last school year, said Jodie Segal, Director of Education.
Of those students, 2,700 were identified as needing help through the screening test given at the completion of the group’s presentation.
She added that 74 of those students were hospitalized for an imminent risk for suicide.
“There’s been a big shift in schools recognising that this is a big issue. Potentially, those 74 kids’ lives were saved … and that’s just last school year.
“We want to be proactive. If they can get support and treatment, they’re not going to get to the place where they have a suicide attempt,” she said.