The number of kids who attempted suicide using over-the-counter or easily accessible medications is up sharply, a new study shows.

This research spotlights a pediatric mental health crisis, said researchers from the University of Virginia Health System, who reviewed data on reported suicide attempts that were reported to the National Poison Data System in 2021.

“This significant increase in suicide attempts during the pandemic surprised us,” said Dr. Christopher Holstege, medical director of the Blue Ridge Poison Center at UVA Health. “We are alarmed at the dramatic increase in suicide attempts in such a young population, which continues to escalate according to our data.”

Suspected suicide attempts by poisoning in 10- to 19-year-olds that were reported to poison centers increased by 30% in 2021.

Among the younger kids in that age group, those ages 10 to 12, suicide attempts were up 73% compared to 2019. In 13- to 15-year-olds, the rate of suspected suicide attempts by poisoning increased 48.8%.

“These findings suggest that the mental health of children and adolescents might still be affected by the pandemic, raising concerns about long-term consequences, especially given that previous attempted suicide has been found to be the strongest predictor of subsequent death by suicide,” the researchers wrote in a paper outlining the findings.

Researchers also noted an increase in suicide attempts by girls — up 36.8% between 2019 and 2021 among 10- to 19-year-olds.

In all, girls accounted for 81.2% of the suspected suicide attempts in this age group, up from 77% in 2019.

Overall calls to the nation’s poison centers dropped 3.1% from 2019 to 2021.

An earlier UVA Health study found that suspected suicide attempts by poisoning among 6- to 19-year-olds increased 26.7% between 2015 and 2020.

Kids most often used the common pain relievers acetaminophen and ibuprofen in their suicide attempts. The antidepressants sertraline and fluoxetine and the over-the-counter antihistamine diphenhydramine were also frequently used.

The findings were published April 21 in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The research team recommended a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention through partnerships among families, teachers, mental health professionals and public health leaders.

They also suggested considering safety measures. These could include public education initiatives on the safe storage of over-the-counter medications and also the availability of America’s poison centers to help. The team also recommended increased promotion of the national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

“As a society, we need to come together in a multi-disciplinary manner and strategize on how to best mitigate this rapidly escalating threat to our youth,” Holstege said.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more on children’s mental health during the pandemic.

SOURCE: University of Virginia Health System, news release, April 20, 2023