UVA Health study: Data spotlights pediatric mental health crisis in America
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UVA Health study: Data spotlights pediatric mental health crisis in America

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A UVA Health study reveals the rate of suicide attempts by poisoning among children and adolescents ages 10 to 19 increased 30 percent in 2021 from 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s first full year in the United States was 2021, and the data was reported to poison centers across the U.S.

UVA Health researchers say the data puts the spotlight on pediatric mental health crisis in America.

“This significant increase in suicide attempts during the pandemic surprised us,” Dr. Christopher Holstege, medical director of the Blue Ridge Poison Center at UVA Health and chief of the Division of Medical Toxicology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said. “We are alarmed at the dramatic increase in suicide attempts in such a young population, which continues to escalate according to our data.”

Suspected suicide attempts by poisoning among children ages 10 to 12 increased by 73 percent in 2021 compared to 2019. Among adolescents ages 13 to 15, the rate increased 48.8 percent, and among females ages 10 to 19 increased by 36.8 percent.

An earlier UVA Health study identified a trend of suspected suicide attempts by poisoning among children ages 6 to 19, which increased 26.7 percent between 2015 and 2020.

The new findings resulted from a review of cases reported to the National Poison Data System by U.S. poison centers as “intentional suspected suicide,” which includes suspected suicide attempts and intentional self-harm. Of suspected suicide attempts, girls accounted for 81.2 percent among adolescents ages 10-19 in 2021, compared with 77 percent in 2019. Increases were seen while overall calls to the nation’s poison centers decreased 3.1 percent from 2019 to 2021.

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen, commonly available and over-the-counter pain relievers, were the two most common substances involved in the reported suicide attempts. Sertraline and fluoxetine, antidepressant medications, as well as diphenhydramine, an over-the-counter antihistamine used to treat allergies, were also used.

“These findings suggest that the mental health of children and adolescents might still be affected by the pandemic, raising concerns about long-term consequences, especially given that previous attempted suicide has been found to be the strongest predictor of subsequent death by suicide,” the researchers write in a scientific paper outlining the findings.

The UVA researchers recommend a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention through partnerships among families, teachers, mental health professionals and public health leaders. The researchers also suggest considering safety measures such as heightened public education initiatives on the safe storage of over-the-counter medications and the availability of assistance in case of an overdose through America’s poison centers by calling 800-222-1222. They also recommend additional promotion of the national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

“As a society, we need to come together in a multi-disciplinary manner and strategize on how to best mitigate this rapidly escalating threat to our youth,” Holstege said.

UVA Children’s and Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital announced plans last month to create a new outpatient clinic in Albemarle County to meet the growing need for pediatric neurodevelopmental and behavioral health care in Central Virginia.

The researchers have published their findings in the scientific journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

If you or someone you know needs support now, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.