COVID-19 Tied to Spike in Suspected Suicide Attempts by Girls

Megan Brooks

June 11, 2021

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Suspected suicide attempts by teenaged girls have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data released today by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Among children and adolescents aged 12 to 17 years, the average weekly number of emergency department (ED) visits for suspected suicide attempts was 22.3% higher during summer 2020 and 39.1% higher during winter 2021 than during the corresponding periods in 2019.

The increase was most evident among young girls.

Between February 21 and March 20, 2021, the number of ED visits for suspected suicide attempts was about 51% higher among girls aged 12 to 17 years than during the same period in 2019. Among boys aged 12 to 17 years, ED visits for suspected suicide attempts increased 4%, the CDC reports.

"Young persons might represent a group at high risk because they might have been particularly affected by mitigation measures, such as physical distancing (including a lack of connectedness to schools, teachers, and peers); barriers to mental health treatment; increases in substance use; and anxiety about family health and economic problems, which are all risk factors for suicide," write the authors, led by Ellen Yard, PhD, with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

In addition, the findings from this study suggest there has been "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," they point out.

The results were published June 11 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The findings are based on data for ED visits for suspected suicide from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program, which includes about 71% of the nation's EDs in 49 states (all except Hawaii) and the District of Columbia.

Earlier data reported by the CDC showed that the proportion of mental health–related ED visits among children and adolescents aged 12 to 17 years increased by 31% during 2020 compared with 2019.

"Time for Action Is Now"

These new findings underscore the "enormous impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our country's overall emotional wellbeing, especially among young people," the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance) Media Messaging Work Group said in a statement responding to the newly released data.

"Just as we have taken steps to protect our physical health throughout the pandemic, we must also take steps to protect our mental and emotional health," the group says.

The data, the group says, specifically speak to the importance of improving suicide care both during and after ED visits by scaling up the adoption of best practices, such as the Recommended Standard Care or People with Suicide Risk: Making Health Care Suicide Safe and Best Practices in Care Transitions for Individuals with Suicide Risk: Inpatient Care to Outpatient Care.

"These and other evidence-based best practices must be adopted by health care systems nationwide to ensure safe, effective suicide care for all," the group says.

"However, health care systems cannot address this issue alone. Suicide is a complex public health issue that also requires a comprehensive, community-based approach to addressing it. We must ensure suicide prevention is infused into a variety of community-based settings ― such as schools, workplaces, and places of worship ― to ensure people are connected with prevention activities and resources before a crisis occurs," the group says.

It also highlights the crucial role of social connectedness as a protective factor against suicide.

"Research indicates that a sense of belonging and social connectedness improves physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Everyone can play a role in being there for each other and helping to build resiliency. Having real, honest conversations about our own mental health opens the door for connection and social support," the group says.

It calls on leaders from all sectors and industries to make suicide prevention "a national priority by becoming engaged in the issue and bringing resources to bear. The time for action is now."

MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. Published June 11, 2021. Full text

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