Child suicides by poisoning are on the rise, data shows

Suspected suicide attempts by young people aged 6 to 19 increased 27% nationally between 2015 and 2020.

A young child looks at chickens in a field near a small trailer

A child visits chickens at Hillside Farms, a grief camp in Shavertown, Pennsylvania, for children who have experienced loss through illness, accident, homicide or suicide. Studies indicate child suicides are rising. (Stateline/Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images Sipa USA via AP)

Suspected suicide attempts by young people ages 6 to 19 reported to U.S. poison centers increased 27% between 2015 and 2020, according to a new study from the University of Virginia.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, call 911 for emergency services or call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline 800-273-8255 to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center near you. You can also call the national Poison Help line at 800-222-1222.

The findings are based on cases reported to the National Poison Data System as suspected suicides, which includes attempted suicides and deaths. The total number of suspected child suicides by self-poisoning rose from 75,248 in 2015 to 93,532 in 2020, with girls accounting for 78% of cases.

The biggest surge in suspected suicides was among children ages 10 to12, more than doubling in the six-year period. But all age groups from 6 to 19 saw increases, according to the study.

The most common substances used in the suspected suicides were acetaminophen and ibuprofen, over-the-counter pain medications found in most household medicine cabinets.

“Our study is one of a number that demonstrates that we are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis in younger age groups,” said Dr. Christopher Holstege, medical director of the Blue Ridge Poison Center and chief of the division of medical toxicology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, in a news release.

Health experts recommend parents take their child’s threat of suicide or self-harm seriously, lock up all medications and avoid buying them in bulk. They advise going to an emergency room immediately after a self-poisoning rather than waiting to see whether the child has any symptoms.

In addition to Virginia’s national study, two reviews in other states found increases in the number of voluntary reports to poison centers and emergency department visits for pediatric self-poisonings.

In Washington state, a review of poison center cases published last month found that 40% of all child poisoning cases in 2021 resulted from self-harm or suspected suicide. From 2019 to 2021, self-harm and suspected suicide cases rose 58% among children ages 6 to 2 and 37% among children 13 to 17, according to the report from the Washington Poison Center.

In Vermont, a report in May from the state mental health department found that emergency room visits for self-harm from 2020 to 2021 increased fourfold for middle school students and threefold for high school students. Of those visits, 41% were for self-poisoning.

In addition to ibuprofen and acetaminophen, the top substances cited in the Washington and Vermont reports included antidepressants, antipsychotics, antihistamines and ADHD medications.

In April, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the results of a 2021 survey of high school students showing that 44% reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row.

A 2021 report from the CDC revealed that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents grew 31% in 2020, compared with 2019. The increase was highest among girls ages 12 to 17, with a 51% increase compared with 2019.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared that the pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health was a national emergency.

On top of social isolation and family instability, the medical groups said, “More than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted.”

This story was produced by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, on June 1, 2022.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline.