Study: Suicide-related hospital visits double among youth, increase during school months

New research suggests a sobering tie between school and suicide.

It's no secret the school year can bring students plenty of stress and other problems. But a study published Wednesday in the journal Pediatrics indicates the school year also corresponds with an increase in hospital visits for suicide attempts and serious suicidal thoughts among America's youth.

"We noticed that anecdotally here in our own hospital over the last several years, we would have a fairly quiet summer as far as kids coming in for mental health issues, then right about four to six weeks after school started, we became inundated," says Dr. Greg Plemmons, the study's lead author and an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. "We found it really is consistent across all regions of the country."

According to the study, hospital visits for suicidal ideation and attempts by children between the ages of 5 and 17 more than doubled between 2008 and 2015. The highest increase in visits was seen among teens between the ages of 15 and 17, the study said, and girls accounted for nearly two-thirds of the suicide-related hospital "encounters."

"All the factors that we know contribute – such as cyberbullying and regular bullying and traumatic events and the daily news – it really is a different world for kids growing up. This is the first generation that has not known a world without social media," Plemmons says. "I think we really have to think about how much is this influencing youth, and are we putting too much pressure and performance anxiety on kids."

For the study, researchers considered data on emergency department and other hospital visits related to suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts at 31 children's hospitals across the country between 2008 and 2015. Identifying 115,856 encounters, their findings of an increase dovetail with other recent research that's shown increases in suicide and depression among American adolescents.

But they also found consistent seasonal variation in the hospital visits, with summer months experiencing the lowest rate and the fall and spring months witnessing the highest. On average, the study said, only 18.5 percent of total annual hospital encounters occurred from June to August, while the winter, spring and fall periods each accounted for at least 25 percent.

"If you look at adult populations, actually the summertime is the highest rate for adults. So I think school plays a unique role compared to depression and suicide in adults, and certainly we're seeing more anxiety disorders, and more things that certainly rev up or seem triggered by school," Plemmons says.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 24, with approximately 157,000 people in that age group treated in emergency rooms across the country each year for self-inflicted wounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In light of his study's findings, Plemmons notes the recent media buzz surrounding the Netflix show "13 Reasons Why," which has led to debate about whether it increases awareness of suicide or inappropriately elevates it.

"I think we're at a crossroads where we don't want to glamorize depression and suicide, which I think to some extent unfortunately that series does, but at the same time we want to continue to destigmatize mental illness and suicide," he says.

Going forward, Plemmons says increasing screenings for depression and providing some family doctors and pediatricians with tools to address mental health issues are helpful steps that can be taken to curb suicide.

"There's still a huge shortage of psychiatry – child psychologists and child psychiatrists – nationwide, and that's even more pronounced in rural areas. Our state here in Tennessee is largely a rural state – so there really is poor access to care," Plemmons says. "And part of that begins with education – the doctor that's being trained today is going to have to learn different things than when I trained 30 years ago."

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