Is There a Link Between the Pandemic and Spike in Adolescent Girls’ Suicide Attempts?

Interview with Ellen Yard, an epidemiologist with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

In 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death among youth and young adults in the U.S. (ages 10-34): 634 children aged 10-14 killed themselves, while almost ten times that number of 15- to 24-year-olds did (5,954).

However, most suicide attempts do not result in death. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at hospital emergency department admissions for suspected suicide attempts and found a staggering 51 percent increase among girls aged 12 to 17 between March of 2019 and March of 2021.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Ellen Yard, an epidemiologist with the Suicide Prevention Team with the Injury Center at the CDC, and lead author on the study. Here she explains that the focus of the study was not the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide attempts, but rather the data and its possible significance.

ELLEN YARD: Our study was just looking at the number of people presenting to the emergency departments. We weren’t interviewing them to find out exactly why they had presented. Some researchers have suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic could be having a negative effect on mental health. We do know that the pandemic has obviously been causing disruptions to daily life, it causes general anxiety about illness, it can cause social isolation and changes in peer interactions. Youth have been especially impacted by some of these mitigation measures, with decreased connectedness to schools or teachers or peers. We’ve also seen that in general during health emergencies, you tend to see more anxiety and depression and substance use and suicidal thoughts and behaviors can tend to increase. The pandemic could have caused barriers to mental health treatment; could have caused family, health and economic problems. All of these are stressors that could increase one’s likelihood to make a suicide attempt. It’s also possible though, like another theory is that with families spending more time at home together, it’s possible that parents and adults may become a little more aware of behaviors related to suicide attempts and so may have been more likely to recognize and then take their child to the emergency department so that would have been a positive outcome.

MELINDA TUHUS: So in this period, I read that successful suicides actually declined. And is that all suicides or just suicides among teen girls? So maybe the increase in attempts was more a cry for help?

ELLEN YARD: So, we at CDC are starting to look at mortality data for 2020, and it appears that suicide as a whole decreased from 2019 to 2020, and that’s looking at all persons, the early data are showing that. But specifically looking at the age group that was in our study, adolescents and young adults, we did not see any change in suicides, so death by suicide, from 2019 to 2020. So, that is kind of a positive thing there. It seems like mental distress may have been increasing a bit, but fortunately, since people are presenting to the emergency departments and getting treatment and getting care, most persons that attempt suicide do not die by suicide, and this is kind of showing the benefit of presenting to the emergency room and getting treatment for that.

MELINDA TUHUS: But, Dr. Ellen Yard, it remains that the numbers skyrocketed for girls 12 to 17 and not for boys.

ELLEN YARD: Even before the COVID-19 pandemic started, we had been seeing higher rates of suicide attempts by adolescent females compared to adolescent males. And we had been seeing, even more concerningly, in addition to having higher rates of emergency department visits for suicide attempts, they were also increasing at a higher rate. So, we’re not sure whether the COVID-19 accelerated this trend even more, or if this increase would have happened even in the absence of COVID-19, but really, just the fact that we found that young females are experiencing more severe distress, we think it underlines the need for increased attention to suicide prevention overall, and particularly for this population.

MELINDA TUHUS: Your study didn’t mention the negative impact of social media specifically on pre-teen and teen girls. Do you think that’s a big issue?

ELLEN YARD: Some previous research has found that increased use of social media can cause adverse mental health outcomes. It can cause loneliness, mental distress, could cause suicidality, because using social media can result in making these social comparisons. You can have negative interactions with other users. There could be cyber-bullying. Social media can also sometimes normalize and promote self-harm behavior, which we absolutely don’t want. But on the other hand, we also find that social media can provide the venue for positive social interactions and connection, especially during times when in-person gatherings are not possible or are harder. So, there’s really two sides of the coin there.

If you are contemplating suicide or are concerned about a loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK, that’s 800-273-8255 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org, where professionals will provide free, confidential help.

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