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Pediatric suicide attempts on rise in southern Arizona

Pre-teen suicide attempts soar
Published: May. 23, 2022 at 11:45 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It is a startling nationwide trend, suicide attempts among preteens are on the rise.

That is according to a study published in JAMA, and the increase started long before the pandemic.

Dr. Hilary McClafferty is the Section Chief Medical Director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Tucson Medical Center.

“We are absolutely seeing this distress reach down into younger and younger kids,” McClafferty said. “We have had 10, 11, and 12-year-olds who have had suicidal ideations, suicidal attempts. We are absolutely seeing that here regularly.”

What is happening in southern Arizona follows a disturbing trend nationwide.

Researchers looked at intentional ingestion calls made to the 55 poison centers across the country and found from 2010-20 - all age groups showed a rise in suicidal ingestions, but the most dramatic increase was among preteens.

According to this study, in 2010, the poison centers reported a total of 1,058 suicidal ingestions among 10- to 12-year-olds.

By 2020, that number jumped to 5,606, a fivefold increase.

Rebecca Carrier is a coordinator for Tucson Unified School District’s counseling department, and said she has seen a big change in the way children cope with challenging and stressful situations.

“That absolutely corresponds with the rise of social media and the decline in social interaction before the pandemic,” Carrier said. “In general, when young people got angry, they would lash out at others in the past, and we are seeing a lot more of young people getting angry and lashing inwards.”

Carrier said the pandemic further hindered children’s emotional and social development.

“They are jumping from, ‘I feel sad’ to ‘I want to end my life.’ As opposed to jumping from, ‘I feel sad’ to ‘I need to talk to people about this. I need to find ways to feel better,’” Carrier said.

When COVID-19 hit, Carrier said crisis-based referrals increased, with students needing a more comprehensive mental health plan beyond what school counselors can provide.

“We are seeing an increase in the diagnosis of anxiety, and major depressive disorder in younger, and, younger and younger kids and it’s just very scary,” Carrier said.

Steve Dudley is the director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center at the University of Arizona.

Dudley said the center serves every county in the state except for Maricopa, which has its own center.

He said his office has noticed an increase in intentional overdoses over the last several years that spiked during the pandemic.

“We saw a jump, about a 30 percent increase in 2020 and 2021 in pediatric suicide attempts,” Dudley said. “This highlights a pretty serious problem.”

Dudley said kids are turning to over-the-counter pills, their own prescriptions, or the prescriptions of family members to try to take their own lives.

“You’re seeing this level of trauma and depression and other hits on mental health and the well-being at such a young age and consistently, that is the other problem. It’s really alarming and it’s really crying out for help nationwide,” Dudley said.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, Arizona callers in 2020 contacted the poison control centers 3,680 times for exposures in children between the ages of 6 to 12.

Eight percent of those calls, or 299 cases, were categorized as intentional exposure to a substance.

In the 13 to 19 age group, 2,639 cases, more than half of all exposures, were intentional.

No one is required to call a poison control center, so Dudley said these numbers are likely low.

“Oh, it’s for sure underreported, absolutely. It is actually a pretty alarming trend and that is why we think it is important to try to do something to stop it,” Dudley said.

Carrier said they are seeing more acceptance for mental health concerns and feel students are more comfortable approaching counselors and other adults at school, which could also be contributing to the increase in diagnoses.

Still, the numbers are concerning, and these health care professionals are pushing for more educational opportunities and resources.

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