Shortly after the pandemic began, when businesses and schools first closed and social lives turned upside down, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts started to increase among teens between 12 and 17 years old.
As winter approached, visits skyrocketed among girls in particular.
During February and March 2021, hospital visits for suspected suicide attempts, including those for actual attempts as well as nonsuicidal self-harm injuries, jumped 51% compared to the same period in 2019, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published Friday.
Meanwhile, suspected suicide attempt emergency department visits from teen boys increased 3.7% in that time.
The gender differences are consistent with past research that has shown teen girls are more likely to self-report suicide attempts than teen boys, the researchers said, and generally visit emergency departments for such attempts at higher rates.
“The findings from this study suggest more severe distress among young females than has been identified in previous reports during the pandemic, reinforcing the need for increased attention to, and prevention for, this population,” the researchers said.
The pandemic introduced unique stressors that could have put many young people at higher risk of suicide attempts, the CDC said, including physical distancing from friends and family, remote learning, barriers to mental health treatment, increases in substance use, and anxiety about the health and economic status of their loved ones.
Emergency department visits for mental health problems and suspected child abuse also increased in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to the report, which could have contributed to the jump in suspected suicide attempts among teen girls this winter.
The researchers note, however, that the rise in suspected suicide attempts “does not mean that suicide deaths have increased.”
The study included data on suspected suicide attempts between January 2019 and May 2021 from 71% of the nation’s emergency departments across all states and Washington, D.C., except Hawaii.
Earlier reports showed that the total number of hospital visits for suspected suicide attempts among people aged 12 to 25 dropped 42% during March and April 2020 when the pandemic was declared a national emergency. But by May, the trend reversed among teens.
The researchers say prevention strategies targeted specifically to young people include limiting access to lethal materials by safely storing medicines and firearms, training community members and school staff to recognize signs of suicide risk and how to respond, and improving young people’s “social connectedness and coping skills.”
“Widely implementing these comprehensive prevention strategies across the United States, including adapting these strategies during times of infrastructure disruption, such as during the pandemic, can contribute to healthy development and prevent suicide among young persons,” the researchers said.
If you or someone you know is thinking about self harm, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or chat with counselors online here. It’s available 24/7.