Suicide rates in children on the rise during COVID-19

How to recognize warning signs and what to do

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 (en español: (888) 628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711, then 1 (800) 273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Concern is rising among mental health professionals, educators, hospital emergency personnel and parents about the correlation between the COVID-19 pandemic and suicide rates in children. Emergency departments (ED) are typically the first point of care for children’s mental health crises, especially during the pandemic when other services may not be available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in February 2021: “Beginning in April 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health-related ED visits among all pediatric ED visits increased and remained elevated through October. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health-related visits for children ages 5 to 11 and 12 to 17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively.”

While there is no clear link yet between suicide statistics and the COVID-19 epidemic, front-line professionals confirm a disturbing trend: More suicidal children are coming into the ED; there are more completed suicides among young people, and there is a rise in suicide attempts among teenagers.

What could be the cause of rising suicides in American kids?

Experts point to possible culprits: increased stress, long-term isolation and the instability of U.S. mental health resources for children. Children’s usual social networks such as in-person school and sports suddenly became unavailable. Diagnoses of medical and mental illnesses have been delayed. When schools shut down, counselors and teachers are not able to identify children who may be struggling.

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Home life has also shifted, especially when schools were closed to in-person learning. Parents have lost jobs and income may have become uncertain. Children may have lost family or friends to COVID-19, which is traumatic. All of these factors contribute to a child’s feelings of overwhelm, panic and loss of control.

Preventing suicide

There is no single cause for suicide. Previous mental illness or substance abuse are risk factors for suicide, but even people without a diagnosis or history can become suicidal. Here are some signs that a child may be struggling with thoughts of suicide:

  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Withdrawal from family, friends and activities once enjoyed
  • Dramatic personality changes, including unusually severe, violent or rebellious behavior
  • Talking or writing about committing suicide, even jokingly, or talking about being a burden to friends or family
  • Poor school performance
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Agitation, restlessness, irritability, distress, anxiety or anger

If someone you know is in immediate crisis, take them to the emergency department.

Tips for talking with someone who may be considering suicide:

  • Tell them what you’ve noticed (new behaviors, etc.) and why it concerns you.
  • Be direct and use the word ‘suicide.’
  • Listen carefully and do not try to dismiss or minimize their feelings.
  • Help them find treatment and give them the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK (8255).

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has many useful resources for parents.