Child Suicides By Poisoning Rose During Pandemic, Studies Show

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Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
By Christine Vestal

Note: 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 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center near you. You can also call the national Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222.


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

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 percent of cases.

The biggest surge in suspected suicides was among children ages 10 to 12, 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 press 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, and go 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 percent of all child poisoning cases in 2021 were the result of self-harm or suspected suicide. From 2019 to 2021, self-harm and suspected suicide cases rose 58 percent among children ages 6 to 12 and 37 percent among children 13 to 17, according to the report from the Washington Poison Center.

In Vermont, a report in May from the 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 percent were for self-poisoning.

In addition to ibuprofen and acetaminophen, the top substances cited in Washington’s and Vermont’s reports included antidepressants, antipsychotics, antihistamines, and Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder 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 percent reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row.

A 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control revealed that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents grew 31 percent in 2020, compared with 2019. The increase was highest among girls ages 12 to 17, with a 51 percent 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 the pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health 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.”


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