A sobering new study out Monday suggests that many preteens who visit emergency services could be in dire need of help to address their suicidal ideation. It found that a substantial number of children between the ages of 10 to 12 who went to the hospital screened positive for suicide risk.
Researchers at the US National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) and elsewhere looked at a sample of medical records taken from 79 preteens who had recently visited the emergency departments of three large children’s hospitals in America. Roughly half of the patients had come with mental health concerns, such as depression or an anxiety attack, while the other half had physical concerns. In addition to the standard medical intake, all of the patients had answered two questionnaires used to assess their suicide risk.
“In the past few weeks, have you felt that you or your family would be better off if you were dead?” one yes/no question read.
Overall, roughly 30 per cent of the patients fit the criteria for being at risk of suicide, based on their answers to either survey. That included 54 percent of the kids with known mental health concerns, but it also included 7 per cent of kids who had only presented physical problems at first. Also worrying was that 17 per cent of the preteens had also reported suicidal behaviour, such as self-harm, in the past.
The findings were published Monday in Hospital Pediatrics.
“Typically, suicidal thoughts and behaviours are seen in older teens. It was troubling to see that so many preteens screened positive for suicide risk, and we were alarmed to find that many of them had acted on their suicidal thoughts in the past,” lead author Lisa Horowitz, a clinical scientist in the NIMH’s Division of Intramural Research Programs, said in a statement.
Suicide among younger children is thankfully rare, with 136 children between the ages of 5 to 12 having died of suicide in 2017, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control. But it’s a deeply understudied topic, especially compared suicide among other age groups. And there seems to be a clear and growing disparity between black and white children. One study in 2018, for instance, found that the suicide rate among black children has steadily increased since 2001, while it’s actually decreased among white children. As a result, black kids were twice as likely as white kids to die of suicide in 2015.
The new study looked at a small sample of preteens at only three hospitals, so we shouldn’t generalise their findings. It’s too early to assume, for instance, that 30 per cent of kids who visit emergency departments in the US have suicidal ideation. But it’s clear, the authors say, that many young patients are suffering silently, and that more needs to be done to identify and help them.
“This study shows that children as young as 10 who show up in the emergency department may be thinking about suicide, and that screening all preteens—regardless of their presenting symptoms—may save lives,” said Horowitz. “Otherwise, they may pass through our medical systems undetected.”
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