The number of adolescents and young adults trying to take their lives with poison more than doubled in the United States from 2010 to 2018, an alarming trend that signals the need for more resources to support at-risk youth, according to authors of a study published Wednesday in The Journal of Pediatrics.
Largely driven by girls, jumps were most significant among children ages 10 to 12 and 13 to 15, the youngest groups analyzed, says the study from researchers at Ohio State University and Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus and the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Data indicate that children in both age groups had experienced a decline in suicide-by-poisoning attempts from 2000 to 2010, but the numbers skyrocketed from 2011 to 2018 — jumping almost 300 percent among 10-to-12-year-olds and by about 125 percent among 13-to-15-year-olds.
Overall, from January 2000 to November 2018, the study found more than 1.6 million suspected suicide-by-poisoning attempts among young people ages 10 to 24, based on reports to regional U.S. Poison Control Centers. Among them, 71 percent were female.
The numbers represent real young people showing up at emergency departments after taking steps toward suicide, said Henry Spiller, the study's lead author and director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children's.
"Something is dramatically different, and it's not good," he said. "Something's going on with these kids, and we want to get a handle on it.
"We don't want to frighten parents, but we want them to be aware," he added. "There is help, and it does work, but you should be aware of this because it's getting worse."
The study did not specify what poisons were involved, though they could have included excessive consumption of over-the-counter medicines. In order to raise public awareness, Spiller indicated that a follow-up to the study might be conducted to, among other things, determine what was being used most often.
And while the study also did not examine causes for the trend, nonstop exposure to social media could be causing hopelessness by reducing the ability to handle stress, limiting creative activities and face-to-face communication and increasing feelings of disconnectedness, said John Ackerman, study co-author and suicide prevention coordinator at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's.
The current infrastructure for at-risk youth is weak, affected by shame, stigma and other barriers to getting help, Ackerman said. He called for a community-wide approach.
Some strides are being made. Ackerman said a Nationwide Children's "Signs of Suicide" prevention program for children in grades 6 to 12 has visited about 125 schools in central and southeast Ohio and assessed about 34,000 young people for risk since late 2015.
Further, he said, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages suicide screenings for young people, and more schools are implementing curriculum on suicide prevention, distress tolerance and interpersonal communication skills.
Along with the increases among the youngest groups, the study showed that the number of suicide attempts by poisoning among 16-to-18-year-olds increased by about 62% from 2011 to 2018, compared with a 15% increase from 2000 to 2010. Attempts among young people in age groups 19 to 21 and 22 to 24 also saw increases in both time spans, though at lower rates in the most recent period.
Also disturbing, Spiller said, is an increase in serious outcomes.
For children ages 10 to 18, serious outcomes increased by 235 percent, from 6,167 in 2000 to more than 20,600 in 2018, the study says.
Of the total attempts from 2000 to 2018, 1,404 resulted in death, about 46,000 involved injuries that were life-threatening or resulted in significant disability or disfigurement, and about 341,000 involved non-life-threatening symptoms that were pronounced, prolonged or systemic, the study says.
On average, there were more than 101,000 self-poisoning attempts per year among children and adults ages 10 to 24 from 2011 to 2018, compared with about 75,000 from 2000 to 2010.
For children ages 13 to 15, the annual average grew to about 27,000 from about 16,000 when comparing the two time periods. For children ages 10 to 12, it more than doubled from about 1,400 to about 3,100.
Ackerman encourages parents to overcome anxiety and talk to children, asking direct questions and refraining from blame or trying to solve problems.
"Indicate that you'll walk with that person to make sure they're always feeling they have someone who will help them through difficult times," he said.